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Interview: Ricky Gervais

30th January 2013

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Ricky Gervais’s highly anticipated new comedy Derek begins tonight on Channel 4. Here the comedian discusses the new project and why he loves polarising his critics.

What inspired you to write Derek?

Everything comes from character. The Office came from David Brent, and Extras came from Andy Millman, and this comes from the character of Derek.

Is his care home a world that you know well?

Yes. Half my family are care workers. My sister works with kids with learning difficulties. My sister-in-law works in a care home for people with Alzheimer's. And four or five of my nieces work in old people's homes. I always write about what I know. I worked in an office for 10 years, and so I wrote about it in The Office. For the last few years I've been working in the media and dealing with fame, and so I wrote about that in Extras. Cab drivers always say to me that there's a great comedy to be written about cabs. They're right. But they should write it, not me, because I don't work in a cab and they do. It's irresistible to want to talk about what you do.

Where does the character of Derek come from?

He was originally a satirical stand-up device. He sees things very differently from the rest of us. He can say funny things because he does it with innocence and sincerity. He is like us when we were eight. He is like us before we discovered lying and competition and selfishness and started to shut up when we were excited in case it looked uncool. He has everything sorted.

What are Derek's key qualities?

At one point, Kev says, "In the past, I lied, cheated and took the shortcut. But if it wasn't for Derek, I'd be dead." Derek is scruffy and people dismiss him. But he has taken the only shortcut that works: kindness. He is pretty perfect because he possesses the only thing that matters, which is kindness.

Is kindness one of the predominant ideas behind this show?

Absolutely. If there is a theme, it's kindness. Kindness trumps everything. And that's why the main characters have to be outsiders and losers. They all have to be deficient in everything except doing the right thing. They're still better people than you if you're not kind. Derek is so non judgemental but he sees through bullshit too. He only has one agenda- "What's the right thing to do?" And he doesn't even know it's an agenda. He's just "good" and nothing takes his eye of the ball.

He sums it up in episode six when he says "I don't think it matters if there is a god or not. I've met people who believe in God that are good and that are bad. And I've met people who don't believe in God that are good and that are bad. So, just be good. I'm good. Not cos I think I'll go to heaven but because when I do something bad, I feel bad. And when I do something good, I feel good."

Can you please explain the situation of this comedy to us?

In any sitcom, there have to be two ingredients. The first is that the characters have to be trapped, either literally or psychologically. Look at Porridge or Bilko or Steptoe and Son. The other ingredient is that the characters have to be a family, either literally like The Royle Family or Only Fools and Horses, or metaphorically, as in Dad's Army. They have to be fighting outside forces together. In Bilko, for instance, they have the attitude that, "We're all in this together. It's us against the world." While in Only Fools, they are joining forces to fight the economy.

So what are the characters in Derek struggling against?

They're fighting the outside world. They often say, "No one cares". So I have a lot of uncaring intruders coming into the care home. A council man comes in and he clearly doesn't care. And sons and daughters drop off their parents, and immediately start looking at their watches. They are all outsiders who don't care. They are a stark contrast to the people who work in the care home.

What is the family at the heart of this show?

The residents and the care workers are one big family. Dougie is the dad, Hannah is the mum, Derek is the good son and Kev is the disappointing son.

Did some reviewers' knee-jerk criticism of the pilot annoy you?

Yes. People criticised the show before the pilot, but that was because they hadn't seen it. Everything I have done has polarised people, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I hope that watching Derek might help viewers reassess their attitude to older people.

Do you think Derek is a great role model?

Definitely. Superheroes fight evil, and in Derek I wanted to create a superhero who leads by example. He's terrified by spiders, but he would never harm one. He says, "I could never hurt a living thing." He is the same with people. He's so sweet - out of the mouth of babes.

Should we all aspire to be like Derek then?

Absolutely. He is the best person I know. He's better than all of us. He's funny and sweet and kind and sincere and helpful and enthusiastic and honest, and that trumps everything he isn't. I love Derek!

Read our interview with Karl Pilkington on Derek here

Derek is on Channel 4 on Wednesdays at 10pm from 30th January.

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