Ricky Gervais is unlikely to have been surprised by the reaction to Derek, his controversial sitcom about an at-best vulnerable figure working in a care home.
Chin jutting out in an awkward gurn and body hunched forward, Derek is a character who is almost asking to be accused of being offensive, or worse, a mocking depiction of people with learning disabilities.
“I have never thought of Derek as disabled,” Gervais said in an interview this week. “If I say he is not meant to be, he is not meant to be. It’s as simple as that.” For Gervais, the character is “a funny little nerd”. The claim has done little to appease his critics and, in some ways, it shouldn’t. Whether Gervais sees Derek as having a learning disability isn’t actually the only thing that’s relevant. It also matters how others perceive Derek, whether it is the families of autistic children who feel he is making cheap jibes or those members of the public who agree and laugh along. We’re in a culture of hate towards people with disabilities, and even comedy – rightly free to push boundaries and taste – can’t pretend to exist in a vacuum.
We’re heading to dangerous territory, however, if we pretend that the creator’s intentions don’t count, if we see offence where no offence was meant. Such an attitude just distracts from harm that really does exist, while creating the sort of hyper-sensitivity to disability that helps no one. It isn’t so long since Gervais was the one conveying this – as David Brent in The Office, he “helped” a wheelchair user during a fire drill by carrying her halfway down the stairs. With Derek, he seems guilty of a simplistic physical acting style rather than an attempt to mock an easy target.
Unfortunately for Gervais, he has previous when it comes to disability, most notably using the word “mong” and then claiming on Twitter that it was no longer a term of abuse about people with Down’s Syndrome. So Derek was always going to sit badly with people who haven’t the luxury of believing what public figures do or say is harmless or sitting by and dismissing prejudice as a joke. It was always going to be hard to give someone the benefit of the doubt when they’ve previously shown the type of ignorance they’re now accused of. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for Gervais, and for the rest of us: words endure and they matter.
Whether Derek works as a sitcom is one thing, whether it mocks people with disabilities is another. Derek’s character is actually a gentle hero; not a victim for others, through Gervais, to exploit. It would be a shame if that message was lost amid some clumsy language, be it new gurning body gestures or old verbal slights, and if only for those of us who were at one time fans of Gervais and who remember David Brent, the embodiment of a society unaware of how to handle disability, carrying that wheelchair halfway down the fire escape.