Saturday, 13 December 2014

In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream

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On 22nd December 2014 the final episode of “Derek” will be broadcast on C4. So far the show has received an Emmy Nomination and this week a Golden Globe nomination for Ricky Gervais’s performance.

There is what can best be described as a range of views applied to the show. In the UK Gervais is viewed a lot less kindly by the critics than he is in the US. In many respects this is cultural.

Here we praise the underdog, who fights and strives but remains “in his place”. Becoming successful in the UK means you no longer stay one of us and become one of them, and the density of criticism seems to exist in tandem with the credit noughts on your bank statement.

In the US success is everything, especially when the story concerns people who come from nothing and rise to the top.

Ricky Gervais is the epitome of the American Dream. Here he is a critic’s nightmare. He by-passed both critical regard and censure with The Office which he co wrote and directed with Stephen Merchant.

The show grew through word of mouth from quiet beginnings to cult status on BBC Two. It was replicated all over the world because it resonated with audiences in describing real life, in all its uncomfortable glory.
So much so that it became an instant classic.

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Now Gervais has risen to the point of success, which means his shows don’t rely on professional opinion. Which if you’re a professional TV critic, well used to framing viewing tastes, must be intensely annoying.

Also with so much of our media now dominated by tabloid gossip Ricky Gervais is a pointless pursuit. In the UK we lead the world in our prurient fascination with the personal habits of our celebrities. Their addictions, predilections, foibles, tastes and tantrums.

Ricky Gervais fails us here too, because he isn’t “battling” anything, and doesn’t really do much except work prolifically and post photo’s of his cat on Twitter.

As a wealthy man in his early fifties, Ricky Gervais bucks yet another trend of celebrity life. He has lived with and loved the same woman for over 30 years, the award winning producer and best selling writer, Jane Fallon.

Online the criticism of all celebrities can be found in plentiful supply. In discussion forums, blogs and Tweets, in online versions of newspapers in the comment sections of articles.
Having a polar opinion, whether informed or not, rules the day.

The film critic Mark Kermode discusses at length the phenomenon of the rise of online reviewers and the fact that a negative and waspish review is very much in vogue. Our collective Internet tastes it seems, run to the harshly cynical much more quickly than to the positive.

When it comes to Derek it was the fan base, which led the field in securing its success once again. The online ground was so febrile towards Gervais, the narrative so set, that when I posted my interview with him before the pilot launched, it was me who was picked apart and my motives questioned. Sections of it were lifted and quoted, uncredited in negative pieces.

This basic fail in journalistic courtesy occurred, I can only assume, because I liked the pilot.

“Derek” is a show like any show. Its polarising effect is brought and wrought by its creator. “He championed cynicism and now expects us to believe he cares? He mocks, and presents us with fake compassion?” is the refrain.

Well, yes because the theme of compassion has always imbued his writing for TV, and as a filmmaker.

The confusion I feel arises from the duality of his work on The 11 O’clock show and from the challenges of his stand up.

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In The 11 O’clock show, Gervais appearing under his own name played a bigoted man pricking holes in the PC tidal wave of the 90’s. This has informed our view and an interesting dichotomy for many people, in these highly literal days of ours.

Irony is seeing its own backlash now as we wrestle and struggle with the notion of whether irony is actually bigotry, dressed as irony promoting actual views.

In his stand-up Gervais again assumes a character, which assumes a position of ignorance, satirises perceived wisdom and deconstructs established truths.

If you remove any stand-up material from it’s context, one where a thought is taken for a walk with an audience comprised of those who know the terrain, then you rely upon examination through the prism of uniformed analysis.

Subsequently, the refrain of “He said what?” spreads exponentially in the nuance vacuum which is life online, where we render ourselves judge, jury and executioner. 

But why pick Derek? Why this story now? Is it to ameliorate his use of a word, online that he shouldn’t have done?

Well no. In fact Ricky Gervais promised C4 over a decade ago that should he decide to turn the character of Derek into a series, that he would broadcast it with them.

It’s “unlikely” that in making that promise, he had the ability to see into the future. Which is good really, as our present, is one that brings death threats to anyone typing 140 characters, which the mob deem to be offensive.

We can challenge and we should challenge. I did and still do.

However when we arrive as a slavering mob, we diminish valid discussion around language, to incoherent screams of rage.

Because in cyberspace everyone can hear you scream.

I feel the reason for Derek now, is one of reflective maturity from the writer. 

If you reach the peak of your career and choose to look only to repeating your success then isn't this playing to the formulaic blueprint, which bastardises art, completely?
This notion of repetition ad nauseam, is a financial pursuit not an artistic one. 

There is a risk even for a writer who knows a commission is more than likely.

To me the choice to keep taking risks creatively is to be applauded, especially when the story concerns a family of people who society with its “flesh and perfection” obsession would rather forget. The risk in ditching irony and cynicism especially when it has repaid you well is also something quite extraordinary.

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Derek has meant a great deal to a great many people.

People who are ‘othered’, who have been rejected, who have been hated and who are ignored.

The show resonates with paid carers, who many people either look down on, or believe to be an abuser.
It resonates with family carers, who fight every day for their elderly relatives, or their vulnerable children, or in my case both.

Diagnosed or undiagnosed, disabled or different, Derek with his inherent vulnerability, speaks eloquently about our lives. This opinion is as valid as any number of TV critics, because we have lived experience.

We recognise our truth in Derek by a writer who knows that if he phones, all broadcasters will take his call.

In reviews, in blogs and on line we can speak truth to power now but when power speaks the truth about us, the forgotten, neglected and abused us, I’m very happy to listen without prejudice.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Asperger's and me.


I wrote this blog in December 2014. 

On the 27th October 2015 I received my official medical diagnosis of Autism. 

*The term Asperger's Syndrome is no longer applied (As per the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)

Today’s post is very personal and I’ve gone back and forth about writing it but feel it may prove useful so I’m embarking on trying to explain it here.

I learnt recently, that I probably have *Asperger’s syndrome.

This apparently is something that comes as no surprise to my family and something which really makes no difference, except in helping me to understand things about myself, that have always been confusing.

This isn’t a self-diagnosis, this is a provisional diagnosis in lieu of a medical diagnosis, from a highly qualified NHS mental health professional, who has known me for a long time and who is counselling me through a difficult time. 

It has only become necessary for her to give this a name now,because I’m struggling so hard to deal with something very difficult. 

That is the essence and relevance and importance of any diagnosis. It is there to help.

I’ve suspected it for a while. A couple of years ago I took the University of Cambridge online Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaire.

It’s a well-respected indicator test and as a high proportion of my immediate family are on the autistic spectrum, I thought it would be interesting for me to take it.

I scored 97%.

I’m not given to self-diagnosis, and although the online test was useful for me, I haven’t sought a formal diagnosis previously. As a carer it fell to the bottom of the long list of other things I needed to do.

This diagnosis was brought to me in the course of discussing something else entirely. I think it was the very best way for it to have happened.

Whether you follow me on Twitter, have read any of my pieces about disability or heard or seen the interviews I’ve done about my campaigning; you’ll know me to believe wholeheartedly in the value of diagnosis.

My experiences with my two children, who are both on the autistic spectrum, have taught me that diagnosis, whenever it arrives is an individual issue, and one which affects the person and their friends and family in different ways.

Some find the notion of difference too challenging to bear, some believe disability must present along with a tangible indicator such as a wheelchair or a cane in order to be credible.

Some further believe that there is a pandemic of over diagnosis globally, which is anathema to them ; “a drain on crucial resources” and evidence of “a nanny state gone mad”.

These people are what I like to call lucky.

I can highlight here the difficulties I’ve faced at length.

Primarily, but not exclusively, my ongoing struggles with high levels of anxiety, sensory defensiveness, and fixations to the exclusion of everything else.

All of my life, I’ve found human relationships to be the most wonderful, terrifying and mysteriously complex things that I’ve encountered. It can be argued that everyone does. My problem is that I find it more difficult than most.

Put simply the more you can do, the more the world expects from you.

I’m truly fortunate to have been born to a mother who was all patience, kindness and truth.

Her wisdom and unravelling of the complexities of human relationships, minimising of my fears and straight forward non judgemental explanations of life went a long way to giving me the tools I needed to face lots of challenges.

I’m fairly gullible and easily hurt and fixate on fairness and slights. I’m also capable of verbal pugilism, insensitivity and forensic deconstruction of others motives and attitudes which is exhausting to be in receipt of. I’m also quite adept at protecting myself, by presenting a much colder front than I feel.

My mum gave me the greatest gift though because she taught me to be empathic. To see others needs as equal to our own and to understand that everyone is struggling equally with the human condition.

So when I see bullying for example or cruelty, or cynicism on line or in life. I find it hurtful and can reduce me to tears mainly because I know harsh assessments of others, are a choice.

Empathy is a skill you can learn if you keep at it.

Sometimes I fail but we all do.

When you have a truth about a condition relating to yourself proffered and then confirmed by those you trust and love the most, it prompts a great deal of introspection and reflection, over your life lived thus far and your choices.

Any immediate liberation from pain of unfairness targeting me, I’ve ruthlessly tempered with recognition of when I‘ve been fixated and detail obsessed to the exclusion of others feelings.

That’s an empathy fail on my part.  There is a great deal of checks and balances occurring in my mind currently.

I feel my detail obsession has made me a good campaigner and I revel in the minutiae of detail in terms of the human condition, which led me to want to be a performer. Drama school was a delight because I was able to immerse myself in the lives of others and utilise the tools I’d honed over the 19 years I’d been a confused human, learning and mostly failing, to fit in, until that point.

It’s a myth to assume those with ASD are incapable of creativity.  From the famous artists, writers, performers and filmmakers through history- to those we know and love personally at art school, drama school and beyond.
Creativity and ASD are entwined permanently.

I’m very lucky to have great friends and beyond lucky to have a beautiful family. I can’t begin to explain my feelings for my husband, except to say that I love him very much.

“But why” is a question I’ve asked of people I trust all my life and been so fortunate to have encountered, mostly patient explanations.

To explain myself in more detailed aspects would be too painful at this point.
The internet hasn’t proved to be a kind friend to me always and I have been somewhat adversarial in my approach too.

I must admit to feeling trepidation in terms of how this blog will be received. However it may also serve to help someone in a similar situation to my own, so for that reason I offer it now.

In either respect I feel it prudent to limit myself to highlighting just one aspect of the traits I have, in order to inform this blog.

It stems, as ever, from my usual approach to ASD, which is to offer a view of a widely misunderstood condition, particularly under recognised in women and girls.

It’s also, as always cathartic.  I’m sending love to anyone who is experiencing diagnosis, to their family, their carers and their friends. 

My hope is that people are able to listen without prejudice when someone offers news such as mine.

There is no shame either in diagnosis or disclosure.

All that anyone really needs to live a full and happy life, is supportive friendship and love.