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.

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