Ricky Gervais’s character Derek has courted more controversy than any other he has brought to screen – no small achievement considering Derek is simple-minded, animal-loving and lives in a down-at-heel retirement home, and you compare him with the awareness-lacking monster David Brent, and the selfconsciously shallow Andy Millman of ‘Extras’.
This week sees the launch of Huffington Post UK’s Culture of Kindness section, where we celebrate TV programmes and films with kindness at their core, and which give a voice to characters in society often overlooked.
To mark the return of Derek for series number 2 which starts tonight, Ricky Gervais sat down with HuffPostUK's Culture of Kindness to talk about his motivation for his own favourite character, just how mean he was being at the Golden Globes, what he really thinks of life in Hollywood and what he thinks lies at the roots of kindness...
“I’ve always attempted to be a good person,” he begins. “I think I have. As Derek says, ‘I’m not good because I think I’ll go to heaven – it’s just when I do a good thing, I feel good. When I do a bad thing, I feel bad.”
Ricky Gervais articulates his emotions about empathy through his favourite character Derek
Well, that seems fair enough. All seasoned Gervais-followers will be aware those sentiments don’t come from any kind of religious belief, so are they the result of a good upbringing, his own philosophy studies at London University, or something more intellectual?
“No, that’s just evident. If you don’t know that, there’s something wrong with you, you must know that. Outside of hypocrisy and trying to get a bigger piece of the pie, or exploiting millions of people if you’re an oligarch, even before we philosophise over something, we don’t think about helping people, we just do.
“You’ve got to share the Mars bar”
"We cry when we watch someone else sad. We’re not sad, it’s not happened to us, but we’re putting ourselves in their shoes. We laugh when someone else laughs, we yawn when they do. It’s empathy and we just don’t even think about it.
“We feel because we’re human and then something happens and you either embrace those feelings, and you get addicted to those feelings of kindness, or you’re hurt and you close up, stamp them out and you punish the world. To all extents and purposes, being human is having empathy.
'Being human is having empathy'
“All the things that make you happy there’s always the caveat you have to have, and that means not feeling guilty about how you got that, that’s important, you’ve got to sleep at night. Some people don’t care about it, but it’s not just enough for you to be happy.
“There’s a deleted scene where Derek finds a pound and goes to buy a mars bar and he goes past a homeless person, and ends up giving the money to him. He says, ‘If he’s hungry I wouldn’t enjoy it,’ - so that’s a fairytale, funny version, but it’s what we’re saying. You’ve got to share the Mars Bar.”
There are two camps of Gervais critics, particularly now he’s created ‘Derek’, sitting at the opposite end of the spectrum from mock-doc meanness of 'The Office' and the pop culture-savvy of ‘Extras’. The first say he delights in a mean strand of comedy, the second that he’s now become a sappy, over-sentimental parody of himself.
Does he feel more vulnerable now he’s no longer hiding behind the ironic cloak of David Brent?
“Artistically, there’s no difference at all,” he asserts. “You mustn’t do that, when you’re writing something, you can only go… I do it to please me. If I’m writing a scene that’s meant to be sad and I’m crying, it’s in. If I’m writing a scene and I’m laughing, it’s in.
“What I am aware of is that, the bigger you get the more people that love you, but the more people that hate you too. But the people that hate you are irrelevant because they don’t buy your DVDs, anyway. And, what’s more important, they don’t make the people who like you take their DVDs back. So they’re irrelevant, so you only concentrate on you and likeminded people.
"People assume, 'oh well, he's just like David Brent"
I do it within a very Darwinian framework. I do exactly what I enjoy and I know that with 7 billion people on the planet, enough people are going to enjoy it. In fact, it’s going to be enough people’s favourite show of all time. That’s just statistically speaking.
"So, just by being famous globally as opposed to having to worry about being big in Birmingham or something. It’s just a numbers game. So, in fact, my success and the globality of it has made me ignore the general public even more.”
Do you find people doubt the kindness behind your ‘Derek’ message, just because it’s coming from you?
“When you pop up out of nowhere, there’s no prejudice towards you. But there’s swings and roundabouts to that as well. Because they go, ‘Oh well, he’s just like David Brent then. I don’t know anything about him, so he’s just like David Brent.’
“But by the time you’ve won awards and come to this, there’s a certain… some people want you to fail, but they have no effect. Pray that I fail all you want. They only have an effect if you let it. They have an effect if you try to please them, or try to prove them wrong.
“If anything, I probably go the other way and annoy them – which is just as bad. I’m only ruining my own project. Ignore them. I didn’t know their opinion when I wrote ‘The Office’ so I don’t want their opinion when I write ‘Extras’ or ‘Derek’. And I’ll also change if I want as well. They can’t have ‘The Office’ again. I’ve changed now. Honestly, you don’t have to buy this, you don’t have to watch it. I’ve done this for me because I really love it, and if you like it, that’s brilliant, great, if you don’t, brilliant as well."
Ricky Gervais gave a right royal roasting to Golden Globes guests, something he wouldn't change at all
Yet another subset of Gervais-bashers are those who thought he got carried away with the power of holding the Golden Globes audience in his British hands, grinning as he mocked the people in the room, including telling them “you’re just more important”. He defends his position stoutly…
“It’s part of my responsibility as a comedian to say exactly what I want, not even what I believe. A lot of jokes are lies. You credit the audience with enough intelligence for them to know what’s based in truth, what’s being honest, what’s being reflective, what’s satirical, what’s ironic, and what’s being silly, naughty and stupid, and when you’re being the butt of the joke.
“Outside that, you make certain decisions, do I pander to the 200 people in the room or the 200 million watching at home? No contest. It’s not a spectator sport. If they wanted somebody to do more mutual backslapping to these most privileged people in the world, then get someone else.”
Of course, the situation is made more complex because Gervais is one of those 200 special people himself, with a fortune bursting with Office royalties, homes on both sides of the Atlantic and a speed-dial that now takes in half of Hollywood. He doesn’t pretend anything else for a minute.
“It looks like I’m pretending to be this Christ-like figure who goes in there and pricks the bubble of pretension. I’m like them! I am them! A lot of them are my friends. I admire a lot of them, and a lot of the times, I feel as spoilt as they are.
“When I’m the comedian on stage, I’m playing a role, I have to be the outsider. I can’t go ‘hey, great doing that film together, see you after for a drink’.
“I’m acting for the bloke watching at home.”
Considering they are indeed his new pals, Ricky remains candid about what he sees in front of him every time he ventures to mix with the glitterati of the Hollywood Hills - if anything, it’s that they aren’t arrogant enough! Or as he puts it…
“They’re a lot more scared than I am. I don’t even know why they’d worry about something I’d say on stage.
“Big stars nervous about what I say about them? Big stars worry about whether they’ve got the bigger trailer? I don’t care.
“Some have been in it from the beginning and they pick up symptoms from all the people around them, what they should and shouldn’t believe. It’s like you feel they mustn’t see a bad review in case it ruins their day. I see a bad review, and I think, who gives a fuck? They might as well be writing on a toilet wall. Everyone’s a critic.
“For the same reason, I don’t understand why people take Twitter to heart. You might as well go round and look at every toilet wall in the world, and be devastated by it. It doesn’t affect you. It’s crap. It’s fucking nothing.
Says the man with 5.7million followers…
“I do it because it’s a laugh. I find it funny, as a comedian, to see what happens. Someone writes back to me, saying ‘that’s awful.’ I think, no it isn’t. Murdering someone’s awful.”
Ricky with his partner of many years, writer Jane Fallon
Bingo! Whether some people think he’s mean or not, Gervais has come round to where his trains of thought invariably end up… what constitutes an act of kindness, or otherwise, in this hyper-critical world?
“The important thing is that people think they can’t change the world, but everyone can. You can change your little corner of it.
“The other thing is that, whether it makes a difference or not, it’s still better to do it than not.
“Derek’s not perfect, but he tries to be, he doesn’t even think about it, but he tries to do the right thing. It’s not the right thing to call an ambulance for a sick baby bird, but how the hell could you tell someone off for having such beautiful intentions?
“Err by trying to do the right thing, and then you don’t really have to apologise. The one thing you could do is just be a bit more tolerant, because everyone makes mistakes. I think forgiveness is the greatest virtue.
“Just don’t sit there thinking you should be kind, do something. I never discourage people from thinking they can make a difference. I think it’s really sweet when someone puts a pound in a pot.
Ricky in 'The Invention of Lying' where, he explains, his character makes one loving gesture
“Also, I don’t care whether it’s to make them feel good or not. Often, when I put some money in a jar, I know that’s a drop in the ocean, I’m often congratulating the person who’s stood outside Tesco’s eight hours a day, I almost want to give it to them.
He could talk about this for a very long time, but our sand’s running out. Ricky Gervais has one final thought…
“I did this film, ‘The Invention of Lying’, and there’s a scene where he tells his dying mum she’s going to go to heaven, even though he doesn’t believe.
“I think that’s how religion started, it might even have been a good thing, it was a case of, ‘I can’t bear to tell this person…’
“It’s a kind urge that’s been misappropriated.”
'Derek Series 2' starts at 10pm tonight on Channel 4.
'Derek' with its retirement home setting and gentle humour is part of our brand new Culture of Kindness section - our Huffington Post UK page dedicated to all TV shows and films that have kindness at their core, that celebrate warmth and generosity between people, and give a voice to those whom we often overlook. See what other treasures we've found here...