It’s not exactly a popular name, Derek. It’s probably never been popular. However, it’s the name that Ricky Gervais has chosen for his newest character creation – probably his most controversial to date.
It was easy enough to laugh at Gervais’s best-known character, David Brent – with his smarmy matiness and his stupid goatee – and how we all hate those ridiculous, egotistical office managers, with their pretentions, their desperate desires, and their vacuous ambitions.
Neither was it hard to laugh at the other characters in The Office. Sure, you had some sympathy for them – having to put up with Brent and needing to spend all their days inside a hideous office doing dull things to make money for entrepreneurs they’d never even met, let alone cared for. After all – they had free will and could have chosen not to do it. Millions of us have been there and done that – and resented every uncreative minute of the paper-pushing, emailing, photocopying, brain-deadening nightmare that’s the reality of most offices. Still, Gervais’s acute observational humour made you laugh, as well as squirm.
Gervais specialises in tragi-comedy, and the darker the better. He creates work that’s complex, multi-layered, uncomfortable – you might almost say Shakespearean. Is this going too far? Gervais himself would no doubt have a good laugh at the notion. But this is not to deny its validity. He writes brilliant comedy based on characters and situations, and on the human condition. But he can also entertain us, challenge us and discomfort us with tragedy and with disability – and we need our true artists to take us out of our comfort zones and into territory we’d normally avoid.
How many of us, for example, ever venture into a home for the elderly, or ever spend time with people who look and behave differently to ourselves? Derek works in a home for the elderly, as a general help and carer, even though he himself relies on the help and care of his co-workers in order to function in a confusing and frequently hostile world.
There’s nothing intrinsically funny or humourous about Derek. He’s not good looking and he behaves oddly. He’s not articulate, clever or charismatic. The thing about Derek is that he has a tremendous capacity for empathy, sympathy, affection, caring and love. He really cares about the well-being of his elderly clients – no matter how silent or batty or odd or ungrateful they might be. He cares and cares, and he gives and gives. And when one of them dies, he grieves – with a respectful, heart-broken, overwhelming grief.
Gervais has incredible guts to even play this character, let alone play scenes where Derek has to kneel at the bedside of an elderly ‘friend’ of his who has just died. And he plays it without smaltz or sentiment.
The reason we’re writing about Derek in this blog, obviously, is to focus on intelligences and virtues that have nothing to do with intellectual or academic accomplishment. Derek’s young female colleague, Hannah, didn’t plan to follow a career as a carer in a home for the elderly, but it’s her love for the people whose lives she and Derek make more comfortable and bearable that keeps her in a low-paid, low-status job – effectively a nurse but without nursing qualifications or salary. She knows she works in what most of us would consider an unglamouous backwater and that she’s well out of the mainstream of human life, but she does the work because she has personal and spiritual qualities that enable her to do it effectively, and because she feels needed there.
This is life and work at the other end of the continuum from the wealthy bankers and chief executives and chairmen whom someone talked about recently as ‘mostly psychopaths’. You don’t have to be a psychopath to get to the top in business or banking, but apparently it helps.
Does anyone seriously doubt that it’s the ultra-bright but utterly ruthless, unfeeling and uncaring types within the banking and business community who got us all into the financial mess we’re in – because they didn’t care and didn’t stop to think about the social as well as the economic and financial consequences of what they were doing with their pyramid selling and and their toxic financial ‘products’? Or were they all too stupid to even realise what they were doing – lacking in real intellect as well as lacking in personal, social and spiritual intelligence?
Hands up guys – too uncaring or too stupid? Can we now please look very carefully at the values and the virtues needed to make the world go round – instead of just crashing it and ruining it? Can we please start to remake our world in order to make a fairer, more equal and more caring society that’s fit for decent people and for all the Dereks and Hannas of this world to live in?
Sure – ‘Derek’ has its moments of comedy and farce – as does all of human life. But it’s no more of a straightforward ‘comedy’ show than Gervais’s other creations – The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short. Gervais is far too clever and cynical and complex to settle for run of the mill sitcom or even satire. Keep pushing those ‘boundaries’, Ricky.