Is there any more irritating sight in contemporary Britain than the grinning features of celebrity slob Ricky Gervais as he promotes a new film or show in the press? This man, once so funny and original, has become a depressing confirmation of the fact that fame can make a fool of more or less anyone.
A few weeks back, Gervais was being laboriously outrageous at a Hollywood awards ceremony. Now, with a DVD to plug, he has been sharing his perspective on the world in a newspaper interview. He can't be bothered to vote, he says, and has decided that having children is "too much hassle". In fact, he thinks that, since there are too many children anyway, it would be a good idea to prevent "useless people" from having them at all. "If there's a woman in leggings, eating chips with a fag in her mouth, sterilise her."
Here, Gervais's fans will certainly claim, is an example of their hero's sophisticated sense of comic irony. That argument is wearing thin. In the past, Gervais said that, because he is "obviously a liberal-minded guy", it is understood that comic routines about the disabled or the Holocaust are intended ironically. This new sterilisation riff presumably belongs to that category. If so, it is difficult to see its point. For a start, is the irony at the expense of a self-regarding celebrity or a bar-room bigot? If it was meant facetiously, then was the announcement that he is to move to New York part of the joke? The Americans get him, apparently. "They respect success... Artists are more revered there."
The real mystery here is why no one laughs at this nonsense – laughs, that is, with true, heartfelt contempt. The British are normally rather prim about the way their public figures behave and the private views they express. If a footballer has an affair, or an MP fiddles expenses, there are stern calls for punishment, retribution and apology. These people, we are reminded, are supposed to set an example to the rest of us, poor vulnerable souls that we are.
Yet no one turns a hair when a man who wrote, directed and starred in the most popular sitcom in years presents unpleasant opinions in a blearily unfunny manner. Imagine the fuss if another public figure – Wayne Rooney or Hugh Grant or Kate Moss – had made facetious remarks which cheerfully justified political disengagement, laziness and prejudice.
How sad it all is. Of all the people least likely to become soured and corrupted by adulation, Gervais would once have been near the top of the list. He was one of the first to recognise the comic potential of an ordinary man yearning for fame. In Extras, the tension between vanity and vulnerability of real celebrities and the scruffy realities of everyday life sometimes worked to brilliant effect.
There is, just possibly, something in his claim that his kind of humour has "a lot of honesty". His desire to live in New York, where apparently they treat him like a war hero, seems genuine enough – although the complaint that Britain is cynical is a bit much, coming from him.
Playing the irony card, though, and claiming that a joke (if that is what it was) is somehow funnier and more acceptable if it is told by a liberal-minded guy to a liberal-minded audience, is anything but honest.
Watch what you say about 'cesspit' England
Any thinking English person will have experienced a small spasm of national pride when reading a recent description of our country by the great Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka.
England is a cesspit, Soyinka says. Contributing to the debate which surrounds the "underpants bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and where he was radicalised, the Nobel laureate claimed that "England is the breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims. Its social fabric is to allow all religions to preach openly. But this is illogical, because no other religions preach apocalyptic violence."
Karl Marx, Soyinka pointed out, also researched and worked in London, and it is at that point that his argument begins to look distinctly shaky. In the same cesspit, eight years before Das Kapital appeared, John Stuart Mill's mighty defence of tolerance On Liberty was published.
Mill believed that "the tyranny of the majority" was dangerous. "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
Most people would prefer this mature, if old-fashioned, approach to the one advocated by Soyinka. The religiously intolerant, he once said, should be put in rockets and fired into space.
Deluded, but enterprising
An ordinary-looking woman of middle years appears on the ITV show Britain's Got Talent. The audience laugh. The judges sneer. Then the woman starts singing.
As it happens, this is not the Susan Boyle story, and has a rather less happy ending. When Emma Czikai opened her mouth, the sound that issued from it was less than angelic. It was as musical as dirty dishwater going down a plughole. She was buzzed off the show before she could complete two lines.
Now she is on the warpath. Ofcom have received an official complaint. Citing the much-feared Disability Discrimination Act, Czikai has pointed out that she suffers from a form of cervical spine neuritis which sometimes makes it hard to hear her own singing voice in noisy environments.
She is also on her way to the employments tribunal, claiming, rather enterprisingly, that the show is essentially a series of interviews for a job.
Deluded as she was to enter the competition, Emma Czikai is right to be annoyed. She was set up as a comic turn for public amusement and is now finds herself an international YouTube joke.
It is precisely the kind of thoughtless bullying of the vulnerable which, after the near-meltdown of Susan Boyle last year, was meant never to happen again.Reuse content