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Derek: will you be watching?

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Vaughan | 10:51 UK time, Thursday, 12 April 2012

Karl Pilkington (left) and Ricky Gervais (right) in Channel 4's Derek

Karl Pilkington (left) and Ricky Gervais (right) in Channel 4's Derek

With Channel 4 still at the receiving end of equal parts praise and outrage over the dating series The Undateables, tonight they venture into the disability arena again with Derek, a new comedy-drama pilot which may later be turned into a full series.

It's written and directed by Ricky Gervais, who also plays the eponymous lead role - a careworker in an old people's home who, judged on first appearances, seems to have learning difficulties.

Ricky, of course, has something of a history when it comes to featuring disability in his TV comedies. There was Brenda, the wheelchair user in The Office, played by Julie Fernandez; Extras included appearances by both 'short' actor Warwick Davis and comedian Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy; while Warwick returned to appear alongside Ricky and his comedy partner, Stephen Merchant, as the star of last year's Life's Too Short.

Like The Undateables before it, Derek has already provoked a huge amount of comment in the press and on social networks before it's actually been broadcast - frequently, though not always, by peple who are reacting to what they've read about the programme and the trails that have aired on Channel 4. As bad portrayals have dogged TV's past, it's perhaps not surprising that there is anxiety.

The headlines certainly reflect the diversity of opinion: "Ricky Gervais: there is no justification for this lazy cruelty" writes Tanya Gold in The Guardian; "Hard to imagine Derek would have got commissioned without Ricky Gervais" in The Mirror; Jack Seale in the Radio Times says the "comedy about a man with learning difficulties isn't the bad-taste train crash you might expect"; while Tom Chivers in The Telegraph bluntly states that "Ricky Gervais really ought to lay off the disabled".

Many of the quotes attributed to Ricky Gervais in the above articles come from an in-depth interview with disability campaigner Nicky Clark, which she posted on her blog last Sunday. Nicky had previously criticised Ricky when, last year, he began using the word "mong" on Twitter, but having watched Derek herself she says: "Instead of it being a mocking disintegration of a learning-disabled man, paraded for the amusement of comfortable unaffected people, it's the story that really needs to be told at the moment".

In Nicky's interview itself, Ricky denies that the character of Derek has explicit learning difficulties, stating: "Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don't mean him to be disabled then that's it. A fictional doctor can't come along and prove me wrong. He's different. But then so are a lot of people ... He's based on those people you meet who are on the margins of society. Nerds, loners, under achievers. If he had any specific and defined disability I would either get an actor with that disability to play the role or I would make sure I was an xpert in that disability and the best person for the job."

Ricky certainly seems to understand the politics of disability and has talked intelligently about the complexity at length on Richard Bacon's Radio 5 Live (he's a guest this afternoon's programme too) and other programmes, but campaigners might argue that he used similar arguments when justifying the word 'mong' which he later apologised for.

Meanwhile, if you're a keen Twitter user, take a look at the #derek hashtag. It's already buzzing with comment ahead of the broadcast, and that's likely to reach fever pitch tonight when the programme airs. There are certainly huge numbers of excited Gervais fans eagerly anticipating the show, but elsewhere @craigsteruk predicts that "Twitter is gonna be rife with opinion, debate and either love or hate for @rickygervais following tonight's screening of #Derek"; @outonbluesix seems to think people have had enough of Derek already and instead offers a link to a "handy list of shows you can watch instead"; @Gnarlydawn criticises Ricky Gervais's performance and says that "playing someone other than himself is just Ricky Gervais playing someone other than himself really badly"; and @henweb wonders "Is Ricky Gervais' new show a big pretend in-joke? It doesn't even look remotely funny. So disappointing".

We're interested to hear your thoughts about Derek, both before the programme - are you looking forward to it or concerned about how the central character might be portrayed? - and after. Let us know your views in the comments.

You can see Derek, and judge for yourself, tonight (Thursday) on Channel 4 at 10.00pm.


  • Comment number 1.

    Could it be TV will now realise that able bodied actors can't play disabled people anymore? I think Gervais thought he was doing a Rain Man, and will be surprised that there is not an automatic BAFTA. Maybe "Derek" will be the disabled community's "Love thy neighbour"


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