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“Derek” by Ricky Gervais: A review

13 Apr

In a week when a relative of mine passed away in a nursing home, I approached Ricky Gervais’ new show Derek (Thursday 12th April, 9pm, Channel 4) with an element of trepidation. My experience of nursing homes is a good one and my relative was always well cared for by the wonderful staff and was always the life and soul of the party. There has been a bit of negativity surrounding nursing home staff in the recent past, particularly due to the shocking Panorama revelations in the episode entitled “Undercover Care” from May last year, and I was worried (admittedly not knowing anything about Derek other than its setting) that we were going to witness a grotesque black comedy or an awkward point-and-laugh affair.

My basis for this fear was Gervais’ latest BBC offering, Life’s Too Short, which was a mockumentary about actor Warwick Davis and his dwarfism. Life’s Too Short received a lot of criticism in the press, partly because it was just plain unfunny, but mostly due to the awkwardness surrounding the absurd exaggeration of Warwick. The Independent‘s Robert Epstein put it best when he said even if you don’t find its content degrading, it is simply shoddily derivative. I simply wasn’t in the mood for a degrading or shoddily derivative comedy about an area I was particularly sensitive to. My scepticism wasn’t necessary however, and the programme, described by Channel 4 as a comedy-drama, was an incredibly warm affair.

The one-off episode follows the title character, Derek, a man with an unnamed condition that is similar (in my experience) to Asperger’s Syndrome, through his everyday life working in a nursing home. His day is a series of comic ups and downs, simplistic and repetitive conversation, and struggling to come to terms with death in his own way. Derek is surrounded by his friends, each one who he considers his favourite, and each one likes him back just for being him. His best friend and landlord, Dougie, played by the Idiot Abroad himself, Karl Pilkington, a typical worn-down-by-life caretaker, and Hannah, played by Kerry Godliman, equally realistic as the thoughtful boss of the home and object of Derek’s wide eyed affection, are the outstanding characters for me. Out of all of Gervais’ comic creations, across The Office, Extras, An Idiot Abroad, The Ricky Gervais Show, and Life’s Too Short, the characters in Derek are without a doubt the most real and the most loveable.

Other than its undisputed warmth I do feel there is much to be improved on in Derek. The first thing is that it needs to work out what it is. Channel 4, as I said, describe it as a comedy-drama. When I hear that term I automatically think of Cold Feet, of Doc Martin, and of Fresh Meat. Not only are these three programmes (at their best) extremely funny, but they also are driven by compelling narratives that give the comedy a well-structured backbone. Derek sadly lacked both in the comedy department, and in terms of a fleshed out story.

Having said that, there were some high points in both comedy and story, and it was by no means completely flat. My favourite comedy moment was shortly after the advert break, when Derek and Hannah were at the pub for a quiet drink. A bunch of rowdy (downright horrible in fact) girls were name calling towards the pair of them. Hannah tells Derek to drink up and they head to the door. Hannah tells Derek to wait there, and heads back inside to head-butt the antagonist in the face, a move that was obscured to Derek. This particular moment, though perhaps similar to an Andy and Lou Little Britain sketch (where Andy attacks a bunch of bullies behind Lou’s back), was real punch-the-air stuff – it was a character acting out something that we would all have liked to have done in the same situation.

The programme did attempt story in a couple of places, including the loose and under explored ‘Hannah fancies Tom but Derek fancies Hannah’ thread, but the commendable effort was showing Derek’s reaction to the death of an elderly resident. It was commendable because it was Gervais trying out a scenario with a real beating heart to it, an important and truthful story with raw emotion. It didn’t quite work for me though, and as a Twitter friend of mine pointed out the music was a bit OTT. In my opinion a simple drone would have worked better; it would have punctuated the scene and gently provided a mood without shouting “YOU MUST NOW FEEL THIS PARTICULAR EMOTION!” at us.  

The only other thing I am not entirely sure of is some of Derek’s mannerisms. I loved the character and the autistic innocence that was well-written, particularly in the ‘are you Secret Millionaire?’ and ‘Have you seen Hamster on a piano?’ There was nothing wrong with the dialogue, or the delivery for that matter. The thing that bugged me ever so slightly was his shuffle. I didn’t think it was necessary to walk with the shuffle. It wasn’t funny, and kind of detracts from the good stuff in the scenes. I also, controversially, wonder whether if somebody else were to play Derek, a series would work better.

For all its faults, and there were faults, I think Derek is a programme that is easily salvageable and I would love to see it come back. With more of a focus on story, and more moments of belly-laughter (like the pub scene), I think it could be a winner. I feel that much of the criticism surrounding it is due not to the quality of the programme, but due to an ingrained dislike of Gervais by some of the British press (case in point).

Watch Derek on Channel 4 On Demand

Hold on Just a Minute, what’s Radio 4’s best loved panel show doing on telly?

5 Apr

A long time ago (December 1967) in a galaxy far, far away (BBC Radio 4), Just a Minute was broadcast for the very first time, hosted by Nicholas Parsons. The three month old network station was still finding its feet, and the now-a-days emperor of panel shows contributed tremendously towards establishing my favourite radio station.

The origins of Just a Minute are said to come from Ian Messiter who, when travelling on the number 13 bus (destination unknown), recalled his school history master reprimanding him for day-dreaming by asking him to repeat everything he had said in the last minute without hesitation or repetition. To this Messiter added a further rule, which is now a key part of the show, which was that the contestant must not deviate from the subject in question. To this he also added the now so familiar scoring system whereby points are awarded for correct or incorrect ‘challenges’.

To this day those rules are pretty much the same. A regular panellist is joined each edition by three others. The contestants’ aim is to get through a minute without repetition, hesitation, or deviation. If any of those three things do happen, one of the other contestants can challenge. If they call it correctly, Nicholas Parsons will allow them the opportunity to pick up the strand for the remaining seconds. It is very rare that somebody goes an entire minute without a challenge, but it has been done.

Forty-five years since the show’s inception, it is now coming to the end of a celebratory run on BBC television. The format is the same, as is the presenter – in fact Parsons has appeared on every single show since its humble beginnings. There is even continuity in the regular panellist, Paul Merton, who has been regularly garnishing the show with his ‘dad’ humour since 1989. The only difference is that this time the action takes place in front of the cameras at a studio at BBC Television Centre on Wood Lane. But does a panel show synonymous with Radio 4 work on TV?

Yes. There’s no other answer, and anybody that says otherwise is wrong or lying. The TV version of the show, broadcast at 6pm on weeknights on BBC2, works perfectly. It takes the game we know and love (and are almost universally crap at), plays it as normal, and even occasionally enhances it.

“Enhances it? Hold on just a minute! Isn’t that blasphemy?” I hear you ask with a panic stricken voice, and yes, I’ll pardon the pun. My answer to your question is no. It is not blasphemy. Television and radio are simply two different media with their own traits and their own advantages. Radio 4 has its own style, its own traditions, and its own somewhat mesmerising cadence. The show we love is deep-set in these traditions but if it is to survive in a televisual world it has to conform to the medium. And Just a Minute does so. And it does it well. It doesn’t bin the stuff that we like about the show – that would be stupid, but what it does do is adopt a more visual stance.

Firstly, the studio is quite good looking. It is split into a traditional TV panel show style with the host in the middle, and two desks either side. Each desk is split into two sections and lights up when there is a challenge. The studio is elegant, and artistically reflects the radio origins of a show which is all about the elegance and intricacies of the English language.

Secondly, the cameras enhance the competitive side of the show too. I was fortunate enough to watch tonight’s edition in which Gyles Brandreth was amongst the guests. Brandreth, known for his lively use of English, is a somewhat animated character. This comes across perfectly well on radio and you can always tell who really wants it by the tone of their voice, the passion in their argument, and how they react when they are ultimately challenged. Television does all of these things but heightens it. Seeing Brandreth delivering his monologue on Peter Pan, getting out of his chair and animatedly waving his arms to the audience like a conductor, words his orchestra, was brilliant fun. And that wasn’t the best bit. Actually witnessing the battle between Brandreth and comedian, Tony Hawks, was fantastic. Seeing the pair get riled at one another, staring each other out, ready to pounce (on the buzzer) at any moment, was unmissable telly.

The third Just a Minute trait enhanced by TV is the chemistry between Parsons and his guests. We know from years of great radio that he’s a brilliant showman that can get the crowd going. We’ve audibly had a sense of that for years, but his verbal sparring with Merton, knowing looks to the audience when a comment is made, and his helping of the underdog works better when you can see them. In an episode earlier in the week Paul Merton deviated from the topic in question. Parsons, unwilling to let this slide, leaned over the desk and pointed to Jason Manford to press his buzzer. Manford did, and was awarded the challenge without really knowing why. This just would not have worked on radio.

Radio 4 is the traditional home of Just a Minute, and it should always remain there. But I would love to live in a future where all episodes of the programme are simulcast on the aforementioned station and also on BBC 2. It would be a great thing for the show, and would also contribute towards that well publicised dream – one BBC. Either way, I hope it returns to vision at some point in the near future.

Just a Minute (latest TV episode) on BBC iPlayer

Just a Minute (latest radio edition) on BBC iPlayer

Official Just a Minute radio website

Just a Minute (TV) programme page

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