Derek (And Me)
Ricky Gervais' sitcom Derek is about to begin its second series on Channel 4, and no doubt there will once again be people challenging me over the fact that I'm not watching it and insisting that I cannot possibly know whether I'll like it or not without trying at least three episodes et cetera et cetera.
This was originally going to be a long post detailing my equally long history of loathing for Ricky Gervais and his having-his-cake-and-eating-it-too brand of unconvincingly dressing mean-spirited bigotry up as 'irony' in the name of humour, setting diversity and equality back decades in the process, and how this meant that no, I wouldn't be watching Derek, no matter how many times how many people might try and convince me that it's actually well intentioned and I should give him another chance and so on. Or, if raining, just tell me to pipe down because we've heard it all before and I'm becoming like a broken record and can't I just go back to making jokes about the BBC Schools Clock etc etc.
This was going to take the form of a look back at his early pre-'big time' material, much of which remains suspiciously hidden from view and conspicuously un-sought after by his otherwise obsessive fans, and how despite his protestations that it was all 'in character' and he now wishes he'd performed it under an assumed name like 'Billy Bigot', it's actually virtually identical to what he still peddles now, especially via his Twitter account. In particular, it was going to focus on the original appearance of 'Derek' in his 2001 Edinburgh show Rubbernecker, in which the character was unquestionably a parody, rather than a sympathetic portrayal, of the mentally disabled, leading Channel 4 to handily demand the removal of some uploaded Rubbernecker material from YouTube (which had been there for five years) when last year's Derek pilot was in the offing. Annoyingly, it's still absent, but if you look hard enough on Google, you can find a Rubbernecker promo interview in which he and Stephen Merchant snigger about having to pretend Derek isn't intended to be offensive in order to, quote, 'toe the party line'.
Anyway, it didn't really work, and having to write about a boring man and his boring material got very boring very quickly indeed, but here's what did get finished, some of which you may find a bit eye-opening:
Believe it or not, when I first saw Ricky Gervais, I thought he was quite good.
No, really. This was 1999, and for some reason I still can't fathom I was an avid viewer of Channel 4's long-running series of pilot tryouts Comedy Lab, starting place of the likes of Trigger Happy TV and That Peter Kay Thing, and non-starting place of the likes of Homie & Away, Pam Ann's Mile High Club, Things To Do In Hoxton When You're Dead and the barely broadcastable Shoreditch Tw*t. Gervais' contribution was Golden Years, a mock fly-on-the-wall documentary about an obsessive David Bowie fan and his attempts to convert his workmates to the cause.
Far from being offensive or provocative or 'challenging' or whatever you want to call it, this was actually a likeable and good-natured bit of fun about someone who simply wanted to spread the joy to people who unfortunately saw him as a bit of a one-note bore; something that I'd wager a fair few readers of this blog can sympathise with. That it was the work of someone whose name I recognised as the 'Music Consultant' from This Life - a job that seemed to involve nothing more strenuous than denoting that Miles liked 'jazz' by buying the most recent Corduroy album and cueing it in track by track throughout the series - only made it all the more impressive. I did see Golden Years again when Channel 4 repeated it recently, and while it didn't seem quite as funny as it once had, it remained fundamentally likeable and well-intentioned.
Unfortunately, my next encounter with Gervais' comedy stylings wasn't nearly so pleasant. This was a couple of months later, when he turned up doing 'roving reporter' inserts for Radio 1's Mary Ann Hobbs-fronted late-night dance music and miscellany hoo-hah The Breezeblock, which involved such witticisms as asking the residents of a retirement home if they knew what fairly unimaginative dirty words meant, coming across as a pale imitation of the vox pop stuff from The Chris Morris Music Show, only lacking both in imagination and in any awareness that the 'joke' in Morris' material was that people will say anything they're asked to if they are offered a chance to get their face on television (or indeed voice on radio), rather than holding them themselves up to ridicule.
Then, shortly after that, he showed up on a programme whose entire raison d'etre was holding innocent people up to ridicule - Channel 4's The 11 O'Clock Show. My loathing for that vile, spiteful and above all lazy dribble of pointlessness and inexplicable launchpad for dozens of undeserved careers is both well known and widely documented, and I don't think I can put it better than I did for TV analysis site Off The Telly back in 2002. Well, I'd probably use better and more coherent English these days, and less quotation marks, and throw in a couple of jokes too, and in any case it's not a patch on Justin Lewis' sadly no longer online 'vessel of rot' rant (though you can hear Justin likening remembering the list of writers on The 11 O'Clock Show to hunting Nazi war criminals in this brilliant chat about the joys of scouring closing credits), but you get the point. I was once startled to see this quoted pretty much in full in a hagiographic Gervais biography in The Works, and even more startled to find that the author felt they 'could only agree' with my assessment of the programme:
"September 1998 saw the launch of The 11 O’Clock Show, a thrice-weekly 'news alternative' that was written and recorded on the day of transmission to ensure maximum topicality. Fronted by Fred Macauley and Brendon Burns, the largely unremarkable and inoffensive test run gave worrying hints of the severe limitations of the format, seemingly struggling to find enough decent material to fill each half-hour edition. When the second series arrived early in 1999, Macauley and Burns were gone, replaced by Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan, and the worst comedy show ever seen on Channel 4 was well underway.
Any pretence of relevance to the week’s news seemingly flew out of the window, replaced by a nasty and sneering brand of humour that took aim at such thoroughly undeserving targets as disability, homosexuality, anorexia and even, in one particularly shameful moment, the death of Cilla Black’s husband – all in one long parade of shameful shock-tactic attention-seeking by writers and performers who were only in it to get their name noticed. Ideas were blatantly 'borrowed' from Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Lee and Herring, Victor Lewis-Smith, Candid Camera, Clive James and countless others, seemingly without any understanding of what had driven the original comic invention, and infused with a casual and pointless cruelty that none of the above would ever have employed.
Momentary relief was provided by the spoof interviews by Sacha Baron-Cohen in the guise of Ali G, but even these soon became tiresome and repetitive, concentrating on the idea of getting the audience to laugh at 'uncool' people in suits or those who were passionate about genuine causes. The team were soon joined by Ricky Gervais, who brought with him a routine based on 'offensive' material that was both tedious because the audience were expecting him to say something 'shocking', and unconvincing as Donovan and Lee were forced to momentarily drop their own 'nasty' personas to fit in with the idea of making Gervais look unpleasant and reprehensible. Amazingly, the series actually got worse as it progressed, reaching a nadir when Donovan saw out 1999 with a particularly nasty joke at the expense of Dudley Moore’s brave public admission that he was suffering from an incurable brain disease.
An attempt was made in 2000 to dig The 11 O’Clock Show out of the hole that it so thoroughly deserved to be in - by this time, even the comissioning editor who invented it was complaining that he'd wanted a UK equivalent to The Daily Show but had ended up with 'people who were more interested in talking about masturbation' - roping in Jon Holmes and Sarah Alexander as new presenters and bringing in a new team of writers that were urged to avoid the unpleasant excesses of earlier series. The basic fundamental flaws of the format, however, still proved insurmountable and by the end of 2000 The 11 O’Clock Show was mercifully gone for good"
Gone from television for good, maybe, but not from the CVs of those who made their names on it, something that has frustratingly led to the show coming to be regarded as some kind of mythical vibrant hothouse for burgeoning talent to rank with That Was The Week That Was or Saturday Live. What they all seem less keen on, however, is the idea of anyone actually seeing any of it, with repeats, DVD releases and even clips of their 'groundbreaking' early appearances being suspiciously thin on the ground, and having worked on a TV documentary about the history of satire that was expressly forbidden from using any footage from The 11 O'Clock Show, I can say with some confidence that it does seem that somebody somewhere is intentionally blocking it.
By the time that The 11 O'Clock Show bit the dust, Gervais was already showing up as a regular in Channel 4's various 'list' shows despite not apparently having much to say about any of the subjects - his interminable waffle about the artistic integrity of the performers in Animal Kwackers in particular was widely derided as a waste of everyone's time - and in September they installed him in his own chat show. Meet Ricky Gervais wasn't that bad, as it happens, but it wasn't anything remarkable either, and the tendency now to label it as some sort of 'lost classic' that was 'buried' by Channel 4 is somewhat galling considering it was a heavily-pushed show in a good timeslot - certainly a better one than The 11 O'Clock Show - which just didn't catch on; if fate was conspiring against it, how did Graham Norton's late-night weeknight chat show make such an impressive debut only a matter of weeks later? Incidentally, the first ever guest on Meet Ricky Gervais was Jimmy Savile, and after his death Gervais tweeted about how proud he was to have had him on the show. Interestingly, this is one of the few contentious tweets he hasn't subsequently deleted.
We could at this point start ranting about The Office, Flanimals, Flanimals Of The Deep, Gervais appearing on Jonathan Ross' radio show to plug the fact he'd be appearing on Parkinson, spurious stories on The Six O'Clock News about 'office life' ending with a plug for series two of The Office, Merchant and Gervais complaining about how the BBC 'kept moving The Office around in the schedules' when in fact it had the same slot throughout and even had continuity announcers introducing it with "...it's true to life, and that's why it's so funny" and "remember where you were when you saw it first", the bullshit stories about how the producers of Arrested Development/Family Guy/Borgen/Help I'm A Prisoner In A Toothpaste Factory are 'begging' him to make a guest appearance but he's 'too busy', the whole 'mong-gate' business and how it somehow caused me to end up sending transmission details for R.3 to over nine hundred furious Ricky Gervais fans fuming "you're the mong here, pal"... but that's getting a bit ahead of ourselves there. Instead, what about the project that passed quietly by while series one of The Office was airing - his 2001 Edinburgh Festival show, Rubbernecker?
Yes, what about it? Well, thanks to the panic-measure history rewriting that preceded the Derek pilot, there's very little evidence online to actually back up any arguments, so it's probably a good job it ended there anyway. But at the end of the day, suffice it to say that it's the work of someone who, despite protests to the contrary by both him and his fans, doesn't seem to have learned anything or have moved on at all between calling striking nurses 'fucking pigs' in front of a cackling audience and encouraging his Twitter followers to post themselves pulling 'mong faces', so no, I won't be giving Derek the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he has changed. Maybe it is positive and sympathetic. But he's done enough damage over the years for people to feel they're quite entitled to either judge it without seeing it or just ignore it, without having to put up with patronising finger-wagging as a consequence.
Now please don't ask me again.