As I am currently filming the new Muppet Movie I am unable to do any chat shows or radio interviews to publicise my new show, Derek. It starts on Channel 4 in the UK on Wednesday the 30th of January and airs later this year around the rest of the world on Netflix.
Luckily, we conducted an interview on set with the main cast and transcribed it into the following blog which The Huffington Post will now publish to its hundreds of millions of wonderful, intelligent, comedy-loving readers.
I should start by saying it’s very difficult to talk with any certainty of mutual understanding about a series which hasn’t aired yet, but I’d like to give a couple of pointers. Here goes.
Is Derek a comedy or a drama? I get asked that a lot. Even after people have seen it.
I say, “What do you think it is?”
They say, “Well I laughed a lot but I cried as well. I’m just not sure if it was a drama with funny bits or a comedy with sad bits.”
I usually then say, “Derek is whatever you think real life is. Is your life a drama with funny bits or a comedy with sad bits?”
The answer doesn’t matter really. What matters is if you enjoy it… for whatever reason. Because it made you laugh, because it made you cry, because it made you think or even because it made you angry. Ha ha.
As long as it made you “something”.
For me, personally, it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever created or worked on. I love Derek more than any other character. In fact, I wish I were more like him.
I wish everyone was. It’s a show about kindness. It’s funny and sweet and deals with the real issues of everyday life. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. The performance that Kerry Godliman gives as Hannah may be the finest piece of character acting I’ve seen. And Karl Pilkington as Dougie makes me laugh every second he is on screen. Kev played by David Earl is a lovable train wreck. You wont know whether to hug him or take him to the vet to have him put down. The uncaring outside world popping in and out will boil your blood and the residents will break your heart.
Q: What inspired you to write Derek?
A: Everything comes from character. The Office came from David Brent, and Extras came from Andy Millman, and this comes from the character of Derek.
Q: Is his care home a world that you know well?
A: 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.
Q: Where does the character of Derek come from?
A: 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 will 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.
Q: What are Derek’s key qualities?
A: 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.
Q: Is kindness one of the predominant ideas behind this show?
A: 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 judgmental 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 6 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.”
Q: Can you please explain the situation of this comedy to us?
A: 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.
Q: So what are the characters in Derek struggling against?
A: 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.
Q: What is the family at the heart of this show?
A: 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.
Q: Did some reviewers’ knee-jerk criticism of the pilot annoy you?
A: 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.
Q: Do you think Derek is a great role model?
A: 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.
Q: Should we all aspire to be like Derek then?
A: 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!
Q: How did Ricky recruit you to play the role of Dougie?
A: We were out having something to eat and he said to me, “I’m doing this new series called Derek. Do you fancy being in it?” He’s always saying that – he got me to do a couple of lines in Extras. I replied, “It’s nice of you to ask, but you know I’m not an actor. Why don’t you get someone who knows how to do it?” I felt guilty about the idea of taking the job from a proper actor. But Ricky persisted, telling me, “All you have got to do is be yourself”. I thought, “I can do that!”
Q: Please outline your character for us.
A: Dougie is me if I hadn’t had any luck. Although he hasn’t been very lucky, he always tries his best. Deep down he still knows that life is basically rubbish, but we can’t do anything about it.
Q: How does he regard his job at the nursing home?
A: As much as he moans about his job, part of him likes it. It gives him a sense of worth. Like a lot of people, the highlight of his week is Friday when he gets paid. But despite his complaints, Dougie knows he has to keep working. In fact, he thinks that everyone should work. He hates scroungers and people who come to the nursing home hoping to benefit from their relatives’ wills. He’s always complaining about Britain’s Got Talent and people who don’t want to work for a living and just look for an easy life.
Q: How did people react to the pilot of Derek?
A: My dad is a pretty good critic – he is not afraid to tell me if he thinks something I’m in is bad. But he really liked the pilot. The show messes with your emotions – it makes you laugh and cry – and there is not much around like that.
Q: What is your take on Ricky as a director?
A: He’s incredible. It’s amazing how he knows exactly what he wants in every scene. He is able to explain what you’re doing wrong, and you just get on with it. It’s over before you realise you’ve done it. It never gets to the point of him screaming and shouting. When he says to me at the end of a scene, “That’s all right”, I think, “I got away with it again!”
Q: What do you think of Ricky as an actor?
A: Ricky is a brilliant actor. I find it odd watching him act because I know him so well. Even though I know what is coming in every scene, he still does things that leave me with a lump in my throat. I know it’s only acting, but it still gets a great reaction. Whenever he does that, I always think, “I can’t do that. I’m going to get found out here!”
Q: Do you think Derek can help change society’s view of older people?
A: It’s a nice thought that after watching this viewers might be more pleasant to old people all of a sudden. It’s probably not going to happen. But if this show makes one or two people change their view of older people, that wouldn’t be at all bad.
Q: Does this mean a new career for you as an actor?
A: No. This is not a new line of work from me. I’m not looking to become an actor. I still don’t feel like a proper actor. Kerry is a proper actress. When you’re doing a scene with her, you’re looking over your shoulder and thinking, “Blimey, she’s really good”. The hardest part is remembering the lines and trying not to laugh. Ricky is determined to make me laugh all the time – that must drive the crew mad!
Q: Have you got a lot out of this job?
A: Yes. I’ve learnt a lot, and it’s been a great experience. Ricky has been great. From the start, he’s told me, “You can do it. What are you worried about?” I suppose I can’t believe my luck. I’ve got no qualifications, but I’ve been given this great opportunity and I want to make the most of it. I suppose Ricky didn’t go to drama school, either. In the end, if you can convincingly be that person onscreen, what does it matter?
Q: Finally, have you enjoyed working on Derek?
A: Yes. I’m a bit rubbish at knowing when something is good. But if it goes out and I can say, “I wasn’t as bad as I thought I would be”, then I’ll be happy. Until then, I’ll be thinking, “I shouldn’t be here!”
Q: Please describe your character to us.
A: Hannah is the manager of the care home. She is very passionate and devoted to her job. She’s a very loving person who doesn’t want to judge at all. That’s quite a rare trait. It’s sometimes difficult to manage not to be judgmental. But Hannah just doesn’t judge people at all, and that makes her a very good carer. It also makes Kev’s presence manageable!
Q: Are there any similarities between you and Hannah?
A: I’d like to be more like Hannah. It’s nice to play her because she is so kind and non-judgmental. Those are characteristics I’m working on in myself!
Q: How would you characterise Hannah’s relationship with Derek?
A: They are friends who go back many years and have always enjoyed working together. She adores Derek. They have a very lovely friendship, and she thinks he’s a great bloke. Her affection for him is really sweet. What she adores above all else is his selflessness, and she wishes more people would be like him. She has developed this affection for him that he values enormously. They depend on each other - Hannah doesn’t have anything outside work. She feels Derek is one of the kindest people she has ever met. There is an absence of that in society, and he should be celebrated.
Q: Could it ever develop into a romance?
A: No. It’s a platonic marriage. His understanding of that is not the same as yours or mine, and she could never reciprocate it. But it remains a very sweet relationship.
Q: Is there another love in her life?
A: Hannah is a bit unlucky in love. She fancies Tom and fantasises about a relationship with him, but that doesn’t exist beyond her imagination. It doesn’t ever quite get going – sometimes things just don’t have the wind behind them. She’s not enormously confident and gets frustrated.
Q: Do you think it’s a good thing that this show does not always deliver happy endings?
A: Yes. I love the fact that Ricky says things are not always going to turn out how you’d hope. That’s true of a lot of relationships. It’s not due to a lack of will, but sometimes it simply feels like pushing a boulder uphill. Tom and Hannah are very scared of jumping into a relationship, making a horrible mistake and hurting each other. You could have shot them running across Broadstairs beach and leaping into each other’s arms like a glossy, traditional love story. But this show isn’t like that.
Q: How have you found it working with Ricky?
A: It’s been brilliant. He works really fast, so it can go by in the blink of an eye. But there are still tons of opportunities to try out new ideas. Overall, though, we don’t take the mick because it’s so precisely written. Ricky arrived with the characters really well formed – they were very well fleshed out from the beginning. But we are still able to do loads of improvising. Ricky is so creative – it’s a pleasure being able to enjoy his whole world.
Q: What has it been like working on the care home set [in fact, a disused RAF base in Uxbridge]?
A: It’s been great. Broad Hill Residential Care Home for the Elderly is a lovely world, and now it has started feel like my world. It felt very warm and magical and cosy. As the shoot has gone on, this has felt more and more like a real creative bubble. It’s a very nourishing environment. You feel the benevolence and love and affection between the carers and the residents. There’s a lot of tenderness and respect there. That’s been great.
Q: Have you enjoyed working with Karl?
A: Yes, it’s been really good fun. I didn’t know him before, but he is the most unpretentious person I’ve ever met. I don’t know how he has remained so unaffected.
Q: Do you think this series could help to overturn a few stereotypes about older people?
A: Yes, I think it could help audiences view older people differently and be more respectful towards them. I don’t think we’re very respectful towards the elderly at the moment. We’re scared of old age. But people forget that old people were once young. Sometimes you hear youngsters say, “You mustn’t swear in front of that old man,” but the old man replies, “swearing was not invented just 20 years ago, you know. I wasn’t always old.” It’s about keeping a young mind. We’re obsessed with youth in this country, so it is great to see a show like this that celebrates older people.
Q: You also have a very successful career as a stand-up comedian, don’t you?
A: Yes, it’s great because it means I always have something to fall back on. It makes me more relaxed when I’m acting, because I know if I have a quiet period, I can always go back to stand up. They’re both forms of performance, but very different worlds.
Q: You are recording an episode of Live at the Apollo soon. How will you prepare for that?
A: I’ll sit on a tiny box in the foetal position for a day, dribbling [laughs]. No, I’m sure I’ll have a mild panic attack and then just get on with it. I have played the Hammersmith Apollo before, when I supported Micky Flanagan, and it’s a lovely room. Sometimes bigger crowds are nicer than smaller ones, because the laughs spread out across the venue. It can be tremendous fun. It’s a great thing to do.
Q: Finally, do you see a long future for Derek?
A: Absolutely. It’s not just about Derek and Hannah. It’s about all the residents. So many lovely characters reside at the nursing home, and they all have amazing stories. It could go anywhere. There are endless tales still to be told.
Q: You still occasionally work as a gardener. What made you switch to acting?
A: Ricky gave me an opportunity, and you have to give it a go, don’t you? In my head, I’m still a gardener. So when you’re offered a job in a sitcom, you think, “I’ll give it a crack, and then I’ll go back to the gardening!”
Q: We need to talk about Kevin.
A: Kev is a bullsh*itter. He’s lazy, but quite confident. He’s like a dog that no one strokes. He just sits in the corner and wants to be fondled, but just gets ignored. I wouldn’t want to send my own parents to a place where someone like Kev worked! But he also has a softer side, and he looks out for Derek.
Q: Please tell us more.
A: Kev is also pretty seedy. I do a stand-up character called Brian, and he can be seen as quite sleazy. In his writing, Ricky has taken it to the next level with Kev. He is properly dirty! It’s great fun talking about rude bits 24/7.
Q: Are there any similarities between you and Kev?
A: No, not now. But he does remind me of myself in my 20s, when I did virtually nothing, and came up with all these excuses. Then something clicked, and I realised that time was running out. I thought, “I’d best get on with it now”, and I did.
Q: Did you do any research into the character?
A: No. Ricky asked me to do a bit of research, but I’m afraid I forgot! The character talks about a lot of dirty things, but don’t worry, I didn’t go on any unsuitable sites. I just imagine things!
Q: What is Kev’s relationship with Dougie like?
A: Kev and Dougie argue all the time, but they’re still like brothers. If someone is giving Dougie hard time, Kev will step in because it feels like the brotherly thing to do. They get on each other’s nerves, but they will always defend each other.
Q: What are Ricky’s strengths as a writer?
A: You just have to look at his past work. The Office is quite good – in fact, its pretty much perfection! Extras is great, too – I don’t want to go on because Ricky will get a big head! He is simply very good at his job.
Q: How have you found it being directed by Ricky?
A: He’s a brilliant director. I have mainly worked as a stand-up in the past, and I don’t necessarily see myself as an actor. But he gives me a lot of room to play, and he doesn’t mind if I mess things up from time to time. There’s no pressure to nail it on the first take. Sometimes I might laugh instead of being serious, and Ricky will just make that part of the show. I can’t imagine what it would be like to work with a stressful director. I think I would walk off and a huff and go home! But we have such a lot of fun making this – and that’s all down to Ricky’s great skill as a director.
Q: Do you think a nursing home is a good setting for a comedy?
A: Definitely. In fact, I can’t believe there has never been a sitcom written about a nursing home before. It seems like the perfect situation. All the residents have these great stories. They’re so interesting. They have lived the most amazing lives. They are also incredibly young at heart. One day I had to come in here and tell a lot of jokes from my stand-up set, and one 91-year-old resident in particular really loved it. Often older people are forgotten about. I hope this might help some people change their mind about the elderly.
Q: Do you feel there is potential for more series of Derek?
A: Absolutely. I think there would be lots of new places to take these characters. It would certainly be good fun to go deeper inside Kev’s head and see more of what he thinks about. And the friendship between Derek, Dougie and Kev could definitely be expanded.
Q: Finally, what have you learned from doing this job?
A: The fact that you have to overcome your own fear. It’s very easy to say no to lots of things. But I’ve discovered that you have to have a crack at things. You may fail at first, but then you realise that you’re not dead and just have another go. I love acting. When you get it right, it’s great fun. It’s just playing. It also beats digging a ditch, which is what I do with the rest of my life. It’s a lot easier than that, I can tell you.
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