As the father of an autistic son, author Christopher Stevens finds Derek – Ricky Gervais’s new comedy-drama about a care-home worker – vile, cynical and dishonest. Here he tells how there is nothing funny about the challenges his son, David, faces…
Disablism. Handicaphobia. Smuggery. The English language has no good word for the prejudice that is comedian Ricky Gervais’s stock-in-trade.
It goes deeper than sneering, and it’s more dangerous than plain bullying. It’s akin to racism, or homophobia, but it isn’t either of those. There’s no word for it.
So he gets away with it.
Gervais mocks the easiest of targets, people with mental disabilities, those without the intellectual capacity to defend themselves. Gervais even has a favourite word for them: mongs.
The trademark Gervais cackle is laughter at the expense of those who already face the toughest of challenges.
To laugh at people because they don’t know the joke is on them, and to mock even harder when they struggle to be included in the laughter — that’s hateful.
My younger son is autistic. He’s 15 and can communicate only with great difficulty.
Though he can mimic words, he cannot shape them into sentences, and he does not understand that other people have different thoughts and perspectives from his.
To David, we are noisy, gabbling machines that often make his life frustrating and frightening.
Because he can’t understand the world, his behaviour sometimes seems bizarre to outsiders — his shouts and his sudden movements make people stare. It’s only when they realise I’m staring back that they’ll stop.
On a few — thankfully rare — occasions we have encountered people ignorant and puerile enough to laugh out loud.
Gervais doesn’t just want to make audiences laugh at people like my son — he wants to be admired for doing so. When praise doesn’t come fast enough, he delivers it himself: ‘I like getting close to real emotions,’ he boasted earlier this month. ‘I’ve never been scared of that.’
So here’s some real emotion: Derek, Gervais’s new ‘comedy-drama’, which aired on Channel 4 last Thursday night was the most vile, cynical, dishonest piece of television I’ve ever seen.
Gervais plays a simple-minded, shuffling, middle-aged care-worker at a nursing home. Derek is so lacking in self-awareness that he doesn’t realise the people he calls friends either pity or despise him.
The episode is shot in the same fly-on-the-wall style that Gervais first made popular 11 years ago in his sitcom The Office. A maudlin piano soundtrack accompanies the action, the music as sincere as the star’s claims that he was sympathising with Derek, not mocking him.
Most people would feel real sympathy for Derek. He is lonely and kind-hearted. And the setting, a council-run institution for the destitute elderly, is the type of unglamorous world television usually flinches from depicting.
For the past week, Gervais has been publicising the show, telling interviewers he shares a fellow-feeling for the mentally-disabled. I don’t believe a word of it.
His performance in Derek was that of a schoolboy bully, showing off to his friends by pretending to be a ‘spazz’, combing his hair forward and sticking his lower jaw out. He broke character every few minutes to leer at the camera, as if to say: ‘Look at me! I’m so funny!’
That is Ricky Gervais’s true level. His comedy seeks to mock and injure the most vulnerable in society.
What rankles most, though, is Gervais’s belief that he can somehow get away with it. He sniggers on Twitter about ‘mongs’ and then pretends that Derek is a sensitive, enlightened look at disability and prejudice