Ricky Gervais courts more controversy with a new Channel 4 comedy that look sure to divide the critics…

When Ricky Gervais repeatedly used the word ‘mong’ on Twitter last year, claiming that he was unaware that it was still used as a term of abuse for people with Down’s Syndrome, the resulting storm of controversy he generated might have prompted him to steer well clear of any topic that could potentially draw fire on sensitive issues such as mental disability.

However, the co-creator of The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short has never set much stock by an often hostile press, and is unconcerned that his latest offering, Derek, a Channel 4 comedy drama set in a care home for the elderly, could potentially attract more negative publicity.

The titular Derek is a sweet-natured care home worker who, while certainly slow on the uptake and decidedly eccentric, does not, despite what may have previously been reported, says Ricky, have a mental disability.
TV&Satellite Week magazine caught up with the comic to find out more…

When did you come up with the idea for Derek?
“This character goes back about 12 years, but then other things happened. Originally, he was an excuse to see the world differently. I’ve still got about nine things I was working on before I made The Office.”

What inspired you to make it?
“It’s an antidote to fame. I just want to do something about normal people again. It’s time to do that, and it seems like recession is the norm now, like the 1980s was a blip.”

Will people be surprised by it?
“I think people assume my work is all meant to be outrageous and cynical, but it’s never been. The Office was never cynical. There were always happy endings in The Office and Extras. This is all about kindness and forgotten people, on the periphery of society. It still adheres to the sitcom format, in that it’s a family against the world.”

Is it different from your previous comedies?
“The difference is that there’s no real veil of irony and people are saying exactly what they mean, however crazy that is. The talking heads in The Office were in juxtaposition to what you actually saw them do. So there was a certain irony to David Brent saying: ‘They love me out there.’”

What is Derek like?
“Derek is self-aware because he’s just honest. He says what’s on his mind. He’s better than us. He’s lovely and he’s kind. Whatever he thinks and does is the nice way to go, whether that’s right or wrong.”

Karl Pilkington co-stars as Derek’s friend. Did you have any worries about him doing his first acting job?
“I knew if he did what I said, it would be great. He plays Dougie, an underachiever. The part was written for him and some of Dougie’s lines are things Karl could well have said.”

Do you have any more projects with Karl coming up?
“He’s finally signed the contract for The Short Way Round – cycling round the world with a dwarf in a basket. When I told him that idea he didn’t say: ‘That’s ridiculous’, he said: ‘So I’m doing all the pedalling.’ That was his first problem with the idea.”

There are some very sad moments in Derek in between the laughs, aren’t there?
“Real life is like that. It’s a comedy-drama, but then everything that’s real and done with a bit of compassion is. I like getting close to real emotions. I’ve never been scared of that. It’s just that people don’t expect that sometimes when they’ve been having a laugh. An old people’s home is already quite a melancholy place. Someone dies and Derek has to deal with it.”

Does Derek have a disability?
“I’ve never thought of Derek as disabled. He’s not that bright, but he’s cleverer that Baldrick and Father Dougal. He hasn’t got as big a problem as Mr Bean. When I portray a disabled person in anything, I get the person with that disability person to play them. The woman in the wheelchair in The Office was an actress who was wheelchair-bound; the guy with Down’s Syndrome in Extras was a Down’s Syndrome actor.”

Do you expect sections of the press to be negative about Derek?
“I’d be confused if they weren’t. Every week it’s been the end of my career for the last 20 years. I started with a backlash. The first reviews of The Office were awful – ‘summer stinker’. What can you do? But if you start making it for reviews or awards, or the public, you don’t get anywhere. I make it for me.”

Derek screens on Channel 4 on Thursday, April 12 at 10pm