Review: Ricky Gervais in Derek

By Nione Meakin

On paper, Derek read like Ricky Gervais’ most controversial offering yet. It's set in a nursing home and featuring a central character who appears to have learning difficulties, so if the alarm bells weren’t ringing outright, they were certainly vibrating.

This is a comic, let’s not forget, whose recent efforts have poked fun at dwarves stuck in toilets and a man having a live prostate examination.

But perhaps Gervais too has tired of such brainless tomfoolery because Derek, his new TV pilot for C4, marks quite a departure from its predecessors.

Gervais is surprisingly good as the titular Derek, an innocent who loves Secret Millionaire, Rolf Harris and clipping the toenails of the home’s elderly residents. Surprising in that it’s a nuanced, sensitive and subtle performance, not words one automatically associates with Gervais these days.

Stand-up Kerry Godliman plays care worker Hannah, in what could turn out to be a career-making role (think Dawn from The Office, but with even more pathos). Then there’s Gervais’ old mucker Karl Pilkington as Derek’s employer, Dougie. This is Pilkington’s debut acting role but, in fairness, he’s playing a blunt, bemused Northerner - the level of ‘acting’ involved is negligible

Pilkington’s role rather confused this show for me. Gervais insists this is a comedy drama with all the attendant highs and lows. As he puts it: ‘That’s what life is; you try and have a laugh all the time and then you find a lump.’

But where Godliman and Gervais turn in naturalistic performances, wringing humour from their characters’ behaviour, Pilkington is there in a comedy wig, being Karl Pilkington. It doesn’t quite gel and, along with a few out-of-place slapstick gags (Derek accidentally sitting in a bowl of custard and falling in a pond), it suggests Gervais isn’t quite clear – or confident, perhaps - about what he wants Derek to be.

The mockumentary format may be familiar (although it’s somewhat unconvincing here – even Derek can’t work out why a TV crew is following him) but this is a far ‘straighter’ affair than anything Gervais has done previously.

It has moments of genuine poignancy and in place of the usual grotesqueries, a disarming candour. Even more disconcertingly, it has heart. Not necessarily in the way Gervais thinks it does – his view of Derek as a simple soul without a bad bone in his body is rather mawkish – but in revealing a more genuine side to a comedian who has a tendency to come across as flippant.

  • Derek airs on Channel 4 on April 12.

Published: 28 Mar 2012

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