Television review: Derek | The Matt Lucas Awards | Horrible Histories

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THE day before the one-off comedy Derek screened on Channel 4, Ricky Gervais announced on Twitter that he was “slowly writing” a full series.

For a particularly vocal section of the media, that writing probably can’t proceed slowly enough. Of all Gervais’s creations, Derek Noakes is both the nicest and the most instantly reviled. Never mind that he works in an elderly care home, guilelessly chatting to the residents while clipping their toenails and watching Deal Or No Deal: Derek, we’ve been told, is a monster.

Or at least his creator is, for daring to invent a character whose regrettable hairstyle and awkward carriage imply some sort of learning difficulty. Or does it? Gervais claims Derek is just someone on the margins of society, falling somewhere between Baldrick and Frank Spencer. But on screen, as he jutted out his chin like Monty Python’s Gumby, I felt myself not so much cringe as physically recoil.

The niggling feeling that something is off actually helps sustain the overfamiliar fake documentary format. If a filmmaker did come across a subject as perplexing as Derek, you could well believe they would want to have two cameras on him at all times. And the way Gervais plays to those cameras, flicking his eyes between them, at once rigidly self-conscious and plausibly natural in his behaviour, demonstrates his mastery of a genre he single-handedly propelled into the mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this problematic part with as much skill, albeit to such uncomfortable effect.

The real problem with Derek, though, is that it’s not that funny. There’s a lot of slapstick but – one notably satisfying headbutt aside – it just seems clumsy rather than effervescent. The necessarily drab care home setting also begins to feel oppressive, even during the brisk running time.

But perhaps the most depressing thing about Derek is that the media kerfuffle has completely overshadowed the work of Kerry Godliman, who is heartbreakingly plausible as Hannah, Derek’s protective workmate who clearly feels life is passing her by but isn’t sure how to achieve any existential traction. I found my viewing experience improved by imagining Hannah was the hero of the piece, with Derek reduced to the role of sidekick. Karl Pilkington and his terrible wig, on the other hand, should probably just stick to travel shows.

Sports saint David Walliams gives the impression that he’d be happy to swim everywhere, but Matt Lucas has instead been looking for his own vehicle. The result is The Matt Lucas Awards, a whimsical panel show where celebrity guests put forward wacky nominations for invented gongs, in silly categories such as “Dreadful-est Football Song”.

With the set resembling a pokey flat, the audience sat on couches and the appearance of tiresome everybloke Jason Manford, the first episode felt like the tortured ghost of Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League returning to haunt a deserted late-night timeslot (the dreadful football songs didn’t help).

Despite the creaky gimmick, Lucas remained weirdly buoyant throughout, and there was some odd stuff in the margins. Former Bond composer David Arnold sat glumly at a keyboard positioned stage left, apparently essaying his very own Derek-style portrait of a lonely outsider. Just as Lucas and his drumkit often stole the show in Shooting Stars, so might Arnold become a breakout character, if anyone can be bothered staying up so late.

The best comedy of the week was to be found over on CBBC, where series four of Horrible Histories made its debut (confusingly, BBC1 is currently showing series two).

Based on the cheerfully bloodthirsty books by Terry Deary and Martin Brown, it plays a bit like Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, if you replaced the visiting professor of history from Queen’s College, Oxford, with a talking rat making jokes about wee.

There have been plenty of bloody revolutions featured in Horrible Histories, but the team’s most recent coup was to reunite the League of Gentlemen for the first time in a bronze age. Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith turned up as craven Hollywood execs keen to panel-beat the messy lives of historical figures into award-bait biopics, and while Gatiss’s American accent was pretty duff, the bickering spark between the three Gentlemen remained.

Recruiting the League should not distract from the tireless efforts of the core cast, particularly Jim Howick, who has matured from being an off-model David Mitchell into a gifted comic actor in his own right. But ultimately, the highlight of this first salvo of new shows was a prancing Charles Darwin explaining the ch-ch-changes of evolutionary theory via an exquisite David Bowie pastiche. Horribly good.

• Derek, Channel 4, Thursday, 10pm

• The Matt Lucas Awards, BBC1, Monday, 11.35pm

• Horrible Histories, CBBC, Monday-Friday, 5pm

• Graeme Virtue reviews TV every Wednesday morning on Radio Scotland’s MacAulay And Co