With Derek and his friends

Francis Sedgemore, Friday 13 April 2012 at 13:37 UTC

Ricky Gervais is a screenwriter and actor who made his name with The Office, a ‘mockumentary’ set in the office of a dull as ditchwater paper manufacturer in Slough: a perfect setting for this buttock-clenching comedy.

The creator of The Office is one of a handful of talented British writers making comedy dramas of this type, and he is living proof of the biblical precept: “He who hath shall be given everything; he who hath not is a worthless creature deserving of no attention whatsoever.”

In the sense that familiarity breeds contempt, jealousy and a number of other negative emotions, Gervais’ televisual ubiquity makes him prime fodder for rhetorical kicking. Much of the criticism is warranted, given the comedian’s propensity for causing gratuitous offence as a means of commanding public attention.

Gervais has of late been pilloried for his portrayal of disabled people, and in particular his use and defence of the term “mong” to describe those with Down syndrome. Guardianland predictably went apoplectic, and, political correctness aside, the negative reaction was justified. Gervais was behaving true to form, basking vaingloriously in the attention heaped upon his person.

Ricky Gervais as Derek (Channel 4)
In the lead-up to Gervais’ latest drama Derek, the critics decided to get their retaliation in first, with some accusing the screenwriter of feeding bigotry. Gervais’ protestations notwithstanding, the lead character in Derek is clearly a high-functioning autistic. Derek is a beautifully developed character who displays intelligence, wit and selfless love, and the drama is more about the relationship between the characters than Derek himself.

“He’s different. But then so are a lot of people. He’s not the smartest tool in the box but he’s cleverer than Father Dougal [from Father Ted], and not as different as Mr Bean.

“He’s based on those people you meet who are on the margins of society. Nerds, loners, under achievers.”

I note that disability rights campaigner Nicola Clark, who previously excoriated Gervais for his use of the term “mong”, approves of Derek. In conversation with Clark, Gervais said…

“It’s important to have compassion for the characters you are portraying because at some level comedy and drama relies on empathy.”

Gervais’s comedic compassion shines through in Derek.