I TALK TELLY

i talk to: ricky gervais

Ricky Gervais
One of the very first pieces I wrote for this site was about Ricky Gervais’ pilot for Derek, a comedy about Derek Noakes (played by Gervais), a sincere, sweet natured individual who loves animals, has a heart of gold and works in a Retirement Home. The piece remains my most read review yet, so when almost two years to the day of writing that piece I was asked to interview the man himself, Mr Ricky Gervais, I couldn’t quite believe my luck.
Last week I was invited down to a Central London hotel to preview episodes three and four of the new series of Derek and straight afterwards was given the chance to ask Ricky Gervais a few questions about the new series, as well as getting to the bottom of that David Brent playing Glastonbury rumour that’s doing the rounds.
It’s always nerve-wracking when you meet someone whose work you admire so much, but within seconds Ricky put me at ease and was exactly how I’d hoped he would be… friendly, funny and an all-around nice guy. There were moments during the interview where the famous Gervais laugh made an appearance as he spoke so passionately about Derek, a project you can sense he’s really proud of. And rightly so as the new series is every inch as good, if not better, as the first series. Here’s what Ricky Gervais had to say…
Q First of all, what can we expect from series 2 of Derek?

Well we’ve got all the old faces and a few new ones. We get to meet Derek’s dad who moves in and is not quite the lovely old man Derek assumed he would be. It’s always been that the outside world is bad and they’re the threat for this lovely little nest of kindness and loveliness, and they often get infected by kindness if they enter. Whereas I wanted some evil within, so there’s Geoff, played by Colin Hoult. I suppose before if the outside world was an irritant, Geoff’s a bit of tooth decay. So we have to deal with that.

Again, it’s not anything political, it just sits with the stories you hear about bad care homes. But I’ve tried to make this a bit more fairytale. I’ve tried to make this the best care home in the world – for my own purposes. You still see little bits and pieces of nastiness here and there, because you have to, because it’s a fake documentary. It can’t quite be The Waltons.

You see a bit into Vicky’s love life. Her bad man choices, and obviously Hannah and Tom – that storyline. The second series is always my favourite, certainly as a writer/director, because you can hit the ground running.

The first series, there’s a lot of ground work, a lot of admin. You don’t need the admin, you can just go, right you know what these people are like, now let’s see them do this. Let’s see Derek on a date. So that’s fun.

Also technically it’s a lot more exciting, because a lot of people probably don’t realise this, but when you write the first series you write it blind. You don’t know what actors are going to play the parts – then you find them, and then suddenly you’re writing for Mackenzie Crook (Gareth in The Office) with all his physicality. It’s so much fun writing for the people you know are going to act it out.

Q What was it like filming outside of the care home and taking those characters to the zoo for episode four?

Well, it’s always exciting. It’s nice visually and I didn’t want to just do it in a Bingo hall or something. One of the big themes is animals – not just that Derek likes them – but… and this going to sound very pretentious and no-one will notice it apart from me, but there’s this whole thing about animal husbandry. Most of Derek’s morality has come from how animals treat each other as opposed to how humans treat each other.

There’s one moment where he says “How powerful a gorilla is, but it only kills if he’s protecting his young” – so he takes his morality from animals as opposed to humans – (puts on Derek’s voice) – “They kill humans for the sake of it.” There’s that theme going on, and also I wanted a nice day out because that’s what happens in life. You have a laugh and then you find a lump. It’s how you deal with it you know.

Q You’re right that is life, and that’s reflected very well in Derek. What’s it like writing those funny moments with those very emotional moments?

Well, it’s what you fear you know? You’re having a great day and then the phone rings. That’s what happens. So you sort of embrace it. It’s sort of tough because you have to learn how to deal with it, and you have to earn it as well. It’s not a backdrop for war, or tyranny, or famine – it’s just a group of people and some of them are getting old.

It’s like, we don’t fear famine or war – but we’re all going to die. And we’re all going to have our grandparents die, and we’re all going to have our parents die. So you don’t have to do much for people to feel that. You explore what each person does to each other.

So I like the fact that Kev put his hand on Hannah (during an emotional scene at the end of episode four) – I think that happens all the time. Even awful people are nice to you when awful stuff happens because suddenly the thing you’re arguing about becomes irrelevant.

For example, if we were having a terrible argument over something you’d said and one of us finds out one of our family has just dropped dead it’s irrelevant. So that’s for pure drama. That’s to explore how these players act in certain situations. And you want to explore everything, because how well do you know someone after three hours of television?

This is already like half an episode we’ve known each other and we don’t know each other at all. So after three hours you don’t know someone at all. Three years you don’t know someone… maybe. So you can always go deeper, and you don’t have to take them to war, or the moon, or defeat aliens (laughs) – you can just have a bad phone call.
My job I think is to make the ordinary, extraordinary. Without changing the laws of reality or the universe too much.

Q What’s the feedback been like from members of your family who have worked in nursing homes?

I think they probably recognise where a lot of it came from and they like it. It might be the favourite thing of theirs that I’ve done …I probably shouldn’t have said that. I think they like the reality – the characters are so flawed, but then they’re not. Because their flaws are things that don’t matter really.

Whereas things like The Office and Extras, the flaws were sort of in their personality? It was about ego, and ambition where here the flaws here are say stupid things, get drunk, bad haircuts. So what? What’s your heart like when it comes to it?

The whole thing was that kindness trumps everything and again everyone sort of knows that and some people don’t even think of it until, as I said, something bad happens, or Red Nose Day or Christmas. But it is there, it’s there and I think that most people think they’re good but wish they were better. And that sounds an odd thing to say because if you think you should be better you could. But it’s difficult. It’s difficult to be the best person you can. Everyone knows it would be best if I gave all my money away, I’m not going to do that because I want it. So you compromise – you give some of it away.

Q Has playing Derek changed you in any way?

Sort of. I do think about kindness all the time, and I do sort of look up to Derek and worship him even though he’s sort of perfect. But it doesn’t make me feel bad, because he’s better than everyone.

I’ve just created a superhero! I’ve created the nicest person in the world, so I can’t compete with Derek. I could try, but I’d fail.

Q Is that one of the reasons why you’re thinking about taking it to the third series?

I want to see what I can do with it. There’s still people just getting it. Just like it took me three goes at the Golden Globes for people to get in the room that I was telling jokes as opposed to trying to ruin their career! (Laughs)

It is an acquired taste, but then everything I’ve done is – The Office at the beginning, nobody liked The Office, it got terrible reviews and then it just grew and a few people went “Oh, it’s alright” or “I quite like it” to “It’s my favourite show” so you know everyone’s a bit Statler and Waldorf with TV (laughs).

Q What percentage of the population would you like to ‘get’ Derek before you feel it’s ‘mission accomplished’?

Oh I don’t care about that. As I say, I don’t want to change the world. It’s not a popularity contest, it doesn’t bother me. But I’d like people to see it before they judge it… which is odd because the criticism of Derek happened before they’d seen it! (Laughs) It even gave me time to add things into the show that they were criticising! Which I don’t think has ever happened before.

But every programme I’ve ever done I’m landing at Normandy and the bullets are hitting me and I’m going – “Go on. Open it.” (Laughs) – it’s just the bigger you get, the worse it gets, but it shouldn’t bother you. Just more people are aware of you.

You mustn’t worry about it, but as I said, it’s nice when people do get it, of course! But you can’t tailor it or second guess people – because you’ll fail.

The things that are made that are so homogenised to please everyone – they do please a lot of people – but not for long, and they don’t travel well. You’ve tailored it so much that you might as well be doing a corporate gig talking about people specifically. And something you make that’s a cult, like The Office or Extras or Derek, it goes worldwide. Because there’s 7 billion people on this planet and it doesn’t even take 1% of people to go “Oh I haven’t seen that before” for it to go massive.

Q You touched on it there, a comedy being able to travel well. How do you feel about the worldwide feedback Derek is getting because it’s available on Netflix? Especially the big social media following the show seems to have…

I love that. I love the fact that there’s a globality to things now. Not just my stuff but in general. Social networks are global. Netflix is the biggest broadcaster in the world now. (Realises) I’m on the biggest broadcaster in the world. But I didn’t have to compromise or water it down, or take out the c-word because it’s not like being on a network. It’s the best of both worlds. You want as many people to see your work as possible without changing one thing. And that’s what I’ve got with Netflix.

And that’s because of The Office maybe. When I launched the podcasts, the reason they went huge was because The Office was in 90 countries but it doesn’t matter why you’ve got a platform, it’s what you do with it that counts. They don’t just like it because they liked the last thing. They make their mind up. It is nice to know that whatever it gets here, it’s going to get 50 million views worldwide which is a privilege. That is amazing. That excites me.

Q And I have to ask – Have you thought any more about playing Glastonbury and how would that interfere with your next David Brent project?

Oh well there you go you see. All it was was someone said – “Would he be interested in Glastonbury?” We’re not signing contracts. I don’t know… I’m torn. I’ll tell you why I’m torn, because as much fun as it is – Why is David Brent, the office manager from Slough playing Glastonbury? Do you know what I mean? It’s a bit odd. He’s doing gigs that are selling out faster than The Rolling Stones and it’s a bit odd.

I’ve got to work that into the narrative, so if I ever do a thing about it… point one, I’m going to film him in smaller venues, and point two I think I’m going to make the band rip him off so he’s still not making any money. David Brent can’t be a big successful popstar! (Laughs).

So it’s going to be ironic. It’s going to be that people saw The Office go out and they’re going along to see him, like they do. So I’m going to have to justify that. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I mean it’s amazing that there’s a demand for David Brent live, but I have to be careful (laughs) to protect the integrity of David Brent.

Something can’t work, but I think people have grown up. It’s like Mr Bean doing the Olympics, nobody was saying – “What’s Mr Bean doing there?” – it’s Rowan Atkinson having a laugh. I can do what I want with him. But when it comes to the narrative of filming the thing he won’t be allowed to be at Glastonbury or Wembley. That’s the fun. (Laughs)

Q And finally, who do you prefer playing? David or Derek?

Derek. I love being Derek. I wish I was Derek. I love playing David Brent, I love being the twat, but I love being Derek. Do you know what I mean? It’s odd, I could be Derek all my life.

You can also read my interview with Kerry Godliman and Holli Dempsey here.

Derek is on Wednesday nights at 10pm on Channel 4 and available on Netflix from May 30th.

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