Brief review: Derek

Derek is Ricky Gervais’s latest TV outing and one which has caused some controversy among journalists and even among disability activists online, with some claiming that Derek is a parody of someone with a learning disability or perhaps an autistic spectrum disorder (or maybe both), and others believing Gervais’s claim that he isn’t disabled but rather “a tender, innocent man whose love for his job and the people he cares for shines through”. It has been suggested that many of the critics have not watched the programme, so I made myself sit through it (it’s only 25 minutes long). The programme is a fake fly-on-the-wall documentary set in an old people’s home, where Derek tries to get the only female member of staff to be his girlfriend, without success. I am not convinced by Gervais’s claim and think this programme both pokes fun at learning disability and makes light of a miserable situation for the old people in the home. It is available here on 4 On Demand for the next month.

Ricky Gervais’s argument is that Derek is not disabled, and essentially that he invented him and knows he’s not disabled, so it’s not for some doctor to come along and make a diagnosis of someone he’s not seen. This is a ridiculous argument. Derek has the characteristics of what might, in the past, have been termed slow-wittedness but would now be called learning difficulties and an adult who was just not very bright would not rip his clothes off and run through a sitting room naked when told there might be leeches on his clothes. There is also some sign of an autistic spectrum disorder, such as when he insisted on tagging along when Hannah started going out with a member of a resident’s family. Derek continually displays a hang-dog expression and has a hunched posture, and lacks any awareness of appropriate behaviour, for example continually nagging the caretaker (who also has no friends and tolerates Derek but clearly dislikes him) while he drives the bus. That these characteristics are nowadays associated with disability, not just with stupidity, perhaps explains why people with disabilities find themselves being called “Derek” in the street, no matter what resemblance if any they or their disability have to Derek or his condition — they include female wheelchair users.

The setting is a rather bizarre old people’s home, some of whose residents appear to have dementia, and of those they have regular contact with, only Hannah seems to have all her marbles and to be at all suited for working with vulerable elderly people with complex needs. It is a mystery how he managed to get a job there at all, or what sort of home serving elderly dementia patients would employ someone incapable of appropriate behaviour, and only one person who could give the elderly people stimulating conversation or who even tries. It must be a pretty miserable situation for the old people, a fact underlined when one of the women says that the young man who visits her (relation not specified) doesn’t come to see her (i.e. he comes to see Hannah). This aspect has not been mentioned in a lot of the critiques of the programme even though it was very noticeable to me, and since the “comedy” is dominated by Gervais’s stupid grin, it’s seems unlikely that the joke wasn’t on the elderly people as well as on Derek.

There have, of course, been many other comedies centred around often excitable characters with obvious social deficiencies (Frank Spencer, Gordon Brittas, Mr Bean) but they were often shown as admirable people who meant well, and the comedy did not make a laughing stock of them. In this, the joke is on everyone except perhaps Hannah: Derek’s lack of sense and the fact that others pretend to like him but in reality are only humouring him, the caretaker and his dullness or dull life (I was not sure which), the elderly residents who had this lot looking after them in their last days. The programme was a depressing black comedy without much comedy, and it was very obvious that Gervais was playing to the camera with a parody of someone with a learning disability, one which is likely to be repeated in playgrounds up and down the country. There really was nothing tender about this programme; it’s a comedy at the expense of its characters and, by extension, people like them.

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