There were some things about Derek - Ricky Gervais’s character piece set in an old people’s home - that were uncannily familiar to the comedic tricks he pulled off to stunning effect in The Office – the mockumentary form that he helped perfect, the undercutting punch lines seemingly off-mike, the cut away from the set piece to the more intimate chats direct to camera.
This worked in its usual fashion for Gervais’s effortless throwaways – “Ferne Britton before she had her stomach tied up or something”, but jarred, initially, when Derek was crying about the loss of his favourite resident Joan, who told him kindness was magic. I repeat, initially.
There was a lot of Norman Wisdom in Gervais’s take on Derek, with a big smidgeon of Mr Rigsby thrown in for good measure. But, if it showed his limitations as an actor, he was positively De Niro-esque in comparison with Karl Pilkington.
All we can glean from Karl Pilkington’s debut acting role as Derek’s colleague and landlord Dougie is that he either acts all the time, including through two series of An Idiot Abroad, or he forgot to act in this, and simply walked into a day on set, and out again.
For a man who constantly says he’d be happier working in a B&Q than in the media world, Pilkington seems perfectly at ease repeating his it’s-too-much-effort-to-care schtick – riffing on one old resident, “he’s nearly dead, if the battery in his hearing aid went, I wouldn’t bother putting another one in” – and I ended up with the feeling we were seeing more of Gervais’s compassion, despite the fact he was peddling harder to act. Which was a neat little paradox.
They were both outdone by Kerry Godliman as Hannah, Derek’s friend as wholesome as the apples she was peeling. Her compassion as the 15-year stalwart of the home was inspiring, particularly in the face of her transparent loneliness, as was her swift treatment of the girls mocking Derek in the pub.
I wasn’t sure about Derek laughing at the video of the hamster on the piano. It seemed to be the kind of thing Gervais uses for post-modern chuckles, saving his real laughter for higher levels of wit, while he knows someone like Derek would have no such choice. Which is like watching Boris Johnson eat a Pot Noodle, only more uncomfortable.
But, just as it didn’t really matter in the end whether Life’s Too Short was funny or not, only that someone of Gervais’s influence decided to give a dwarf actor a lead role in a comedy, so it doesn’t really matter whether or not everything worked in Derek.
When Life’s Too Short beat the same recognisable drum of The Office splitting the comedic atom with Extras, I hoped Gervais would go off and do something, unlimited by expectation, fear or public opinion. Well, he has.
The man who created the David Brent disco dance has bizarrely entered the realm of Beckham, Clooney (I’m going to whisper Ali) – people whose choices transcend their original field, and he has chosen to highlight someone on the edge of society’s norms, who would normally be ignored at best, derided at worst.
We know that, whatever Twitter might tell you and what gaffes he makes when he’s feeling too clever, Ricky Gervais is compassionate – his love of animals, his longtime partner, his friends all give him away. A bit like Bob Geldof, whatever you think of some of his outbursts, he’s still one of the good guys - who seems to want help create a world where, as Derek remembered Joan telling him through his tears, “kindness is magic, more important than being good-looking or clever.”