Ricky Gervais' Derek may be clumsy but he’s not cruel

Gervais claims the character in his controversial new sitcom isn't meant to be disabled - but how is he perceived?

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Web Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Web Designer is required to join a f...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Business Development Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to develop an ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has reiterated his pre-election promise to radically improve the NHS  

How can we save the NHS? Rediscover the stiff upper lip

Jeremy Laurance
 

Thanks to Harriet Harman, Labour is holding its own against the Tory legislative assault

Isabel Hardman
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor