Added on Thursday 3 May 2012
Ricky Gervais recently premiered a pilot show called Derek, about a learning-disabled man (who may or may not have Asperger Syndrome) working in an old folks home. As a writer and an Asperger, I've been thinking about Derek during the week and debating what to say without getting hanged from the yardarm. If most people just didn't find Derek funny, that's nothing like as bad as some of the comments that have been going around. For example, Christopher Stevens (who does have an autistic son) gave Derek a ferocious battering in the Mail Online.
Right. To start off, then, I did actually grow up around mentally-handicapped people and knew a couple of Downs Syndrome kids when I was a kid myself (yes, I knew the term "Mongol" and even used it once or twice, but never maliciously), I know the difference between mental handicap (no, madame, your son is not slow...), learning disability and real insanity. I used to live twelve miles from the wonderfully named Carstairs State Penitentiary for the Criminally Insane (now the slightly safer-sounding
So I know the differences, the gradations and the grey areas, and I myself am learning-disabled. I have been treated badly by people who should have known better, and I have on occasion been disgusted by the ignorant behaviour of so-called normal people. Comments I have particularly disliked include: everyone's a bit like that, why can't you just block it out; and one classically vicious one: you don't listen and you don't learn.
So why did I like Derek?
Well, for one thing, far too many comedies (and remember Derek was labelled a comedy drama, it wasn't all supposed to be for laughs) have been so emasculated by what I generically term the BBC Committee for Boredom that they have neither character nor pith nor vim nor vigour. I have long loathed "gentle" comedy (may As Time Goes By and Last Of The Summer Wine fry in the fiery pits of hell forever), and have always believed that good comedy and good drama must indeed have an edge. In a word, not everyone is going to like it, and far too many times I'd say the media tries to commission programmes which they hope will be liked by everybody and end up appealing only to the lowest or most enfeebled common denominator. Gentle. Yuck.
Again, I must put in a caveat. I don't agree with laughing at anybody. I agree with laughing with and finding fellow feeling with somebody. I'm also seriously concerned that today's culture of political correctness means that sharing an irreverent joke can become an offense virtually punishable by death.
Derek (the character) had his flaws and so do I. Derek did some bloody silly things. So have I. Derek and Hannah had some fellow-feeling. Perhaps, so do my film star and I! Derek was sad when an elderly lady he liked died. I went to a funeral of an elderly aunt of mine last Tuesday, and so on.
In the end, we all have our flaws, and Derek is not perfect. Ricky Gervais has made mistakes, but that's why it's a better piece of work than As Time Goes By ever will be. He tried to say something, and he knew not everybody would like it.
Aspergers like myself will not integrate ourselves into society by hiding behind po-faced shells of political correctness. Laugh with Derek and get to know him. I thought he was quite an interesting guy.