31 January 2013


It's a law of blogging, and possibly a law of the land, that sooner or later every blogger has to tackle the Ricky Gervais question. So, readers, we'll do this once and never again, and we all know you won't read it anyway.

I can still remember listening to Ricky Gervais on the radio as I was driving to Darlington for my friend Sally's wedding. He was talking about a new television show that was going to be on BBC2 quite soon, about the people who worked in an office. It sounded good, and I loved it from the start right through to the sentimental but happy ending. A lot of the people I worked with, in an office, as it happens, hated it, and I would try to defend it, but the one argument I could never entirely counter was the allegation that Gervais wasn't acting - he was only playing himself. People, I thought, didn't realise that that didn't matter. David Brent wasn't the star of the show, but a grotesque subplot to the real story of Tim and Dawn, both beautifully acted characters, both generously given all the best stories.

But it's been downhill all the way from there for me. In Extras he continued in the same character, but it became central. The character of Maggie should have been the star, but as the programme went on she was increasingly excluded from the story. Instead, the show was filled with cameo roles for celebrities. These were sometimes funny, but seemed like a huge boast about the contents of his address book. By the end of the second series the programme had broken under the weight of the celeb burden and Gervais gave us a long final episode in which his character and Maggie were finally reunited, and Gervais launched into an embarassing and hypocritical tirade against celebrity culture, so contradicted by his own life that he was not even biting the hand that had fed him but kissing it.

By this stage, I was predisposed to dislike anyting he was associated with. He got into twitter storms for his insensitive use of words like "mong" and it seemed his career was in trouble.

Then came Life's Too Short. I honestly think that even if this had followed The Office, when I and most people still loved his work, I and most people would have concluded it was rubbish. As a comedy it just didn't work. It looked as if Gervais didn't have a true understanding of comedy, with comic scenes being played out laboriously, as if he had read a manual on the elements of farce, but just didn't get it. There was one sequence where Warwick Davis's character had a new washing machine delivered, and set out to fly-tip the old one down an embankment, little knowing that he was in fact dumping the new one after a switch-over. It was clueless on so many levels.

But if Gervais wasn't funny, at least he was clever. Building a sitcom around Warwick Davis meant that he could be accused of bullying, of exploiting Davis's stature unfairly. That wasn't what he was doing at all, but it meant that discussion of the programme centred around that question, and on that I'd defend him. The show wasn't offensive in that way: Davis's character was generally sympathetically drawn, with only a few crude slapstick elements.

Same thing with Derek. Now the lead character has some kind of learning difficulty. So again, the discussion has been centred around the question of whether the portrayal of Derek is offensive. Gervais has pre-empted this, talking about his view of Derek as just a good, simple soul in a wicked world, and there was a pointed passage in last night's first episode where Derek dismissed the importance of attaching any kind of label to his behaviour. Again, I'd defend Gervais: the portrayal of Derek isn't inherently offensive.

But Gervais's acting is. If you believe that the skill of acting is to appear to become a real person who is not yourself, then Gervais can't act. To be fair, it is a three dimensional performance: Derek consists of a bad cardigan and haircut, an awkward stance, and the voice of Sam Gamgee. That and a lot of other people telling us how sweet, kind and funny he is.

Some of Gervais's generosity remains. Kerry Godliman, as Hannah the home manager, gets some good lines and the chance to show the rest of the cast what acting looks like. But she's trapped by a scenario that's flawed. A council inspector, twirling his invisible evil moustache, threatens to cut funds. "Well, we'll raise our own funds then" she says. What does that even mean? What kind of care home manager could say such nonsense? The kind who finds a drunken, sex-obsessed outsider naked in the bed of one of the residents, and lets him back into the building, that's who. Yes, I know it's a comedy not a documentary, but comedy only works if it bounces against a believable reality.

The last point I want to make about Derek is the portrayal of the residents. Maybe it's a satire of how too many residents are in fact treated, but here there was little or no autonomy shown by the residents. We caught a few names, but no characters. I don't think it is a satire, and maybe this will change as the series develops, but at present it seems like the residents are just a backdrop for Derek's troubles.

Which is a shame, because Gervais' intentions appear honorable. The fate of people in residential care can be horrendous, and ostensibly he's trying to do something about it. But at present, the programme's just perptuating residents' role as passive beneficiaries of Derek's kindness, Hannah's determination and Gervais's understanding.

But I've got trapped into discussing the programme as if it were a documentary or a polemic. As I've suggested this may be helpful for Gervais, as it stops us considering it as comedy. It's generally foolish to discuss tastes in comedy, and some people will have liked this very much. I have to report - I told you, it's the law - that I sat through the show without a laugh.

Of course Ricky Gervais is too big to be affected by anything I say. Channel 4 let him write, direct, executive-produce and star in his own series. My whispering in his ear "Remember you are mortal" will be drowned out by his 4 million twitter followers, constantly telling him "You are a comedy god". But that adulation and that power look more and more like they are destroying any comedy gift he once had.

I'll end by linking to a fairly old blog post by Christina Martin - a funny woman, a campaigner for disabled people, and formerly a stand-up comic. The whole post is worth reading, but here's the best bit.

I've been struggling with my feelings towards Gervais for a long time now. I loved the XFM years and The Office. I thought he dealt with reactions to disability really well in the latter. Brent's behaviour towards the employee in the wheelchair was so well observed.

He did sail quite close to the wind in his stand-up sometimes and that made me recoil a bit, but I thought he was smarter than that and concluded it must have been done with irony.

Then I met him. Or rather didn't. And had to conclude that, yes, he is just a jackass. Here comes that anecdote. I've been sitting on it out of respect. It's not classy to bad mouth other comics. But I am no longer a comic and he no longer deserves my respect.

So, I did some stand-up at the Bloomsbury Theatre a few Christmases ago. I was really excited about it as I was on the same bill as Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Mark Thomas, Josie Long, Chris Addison, loads of really good people. Gervais was also on the bill.

We had a massive green room, full of food and stuff that we were autographing for auction. As it was Christmas there was a lovely festive feel and everyone was having fun backstage.

I was waiting for Gervais to turn up but he never did. After a while it was explained to us by the organiser that he refused to share a green room with anyone, in case we bothered him. Can you imagine Stewart Lee going all fan boy over Ricky Gervais? Please!

They'd had to make him up an impromptu dressing room out of one of the spare rooms backstage. Food and drink was removed from our room for him, and the stuff to be autographed was collected and taken to him when we were all done signing it.

When the show started we all stood in the wings, cheering each other on and watching each others' sets. Then the organiser informed us that Gervais didn't want anyone standing in the wings when he was on, and that we were all to go back to the basement dressing rooms before and during his performance. Twenty performers, many of them top names, being bossed about by this diva-ish man.

I thought 'screw that - you don't tell me where to stand' so I hid behind a giant beanstalk (panto season!) and waited for him to go on.

He emerged from the dressing room area, with a miserable face on him, and did a quick check of the wings to make sure no oiks were hanging around. He didn't find me. Don't know what he'd have done if he had.

Oh and he had a man following him, carrying his bottled water. All he was missing was a chiuaua in a bag.

What a jackass. What a shame.

1 comment :

Andrew H said...

The Office was painfully ammusing (at least the few episodes I happend to catch). But I have never found Gervais funny. My son and daughter do, but I just don't get it. So, right on Mr Haines. And some one read it and commented.

Not that Gervais will give a stuff.