‘The controversy was exasperating.’ Kerry Godliman on working with Ricky Gervais on Derek

Actress and comedian Kerry Godliman
Actress and comedian Kerry Godliman
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“After seeing Derek, another comic said to me ‘well, lucky you! That’s your ticket out isn’t it?’” Kerry Godliman smiles, a little awkwardly, over a cup of tea.

“As if performing stand-up is a coalface. I love the comedy scene and would have given up acting years ago if I hadn’t become a comic. Because stand-up is something I can depend on. It really is the best life.”

Love or loathe Ricky Gervais, he has a discerning eye for talent. His new Channel 4 comedy-drama Derek is about a simple soul, seemingly with learning difficulties, working in a care home for the elderly. As writer, director and title character, Gervais will undoubtedly split audiences even further about his own abilities. But, like Martin Freeman in The Office and Ashley Jensen in Extras, stand-up and actor Godliman ought to be Derek’s breakout star.

The comedy’s tone veers erratically between sensitivity and sentimentality, broad humour and pathos. But with Gervais’ regular fall guy Karl Pilkington impressive as Dougie, a despairing caretaker, and the excellent Godliman as Hannah, the self-sacrificing manager, both the home and show just about hold together. Her performance, Gervais has remarked, “may be the finest piece of character acting I’ve seen”.

In Extras, Jensen rubbed along with the celebrities before becoming one. But for Godliman, who had a minor role in that sitcom, as well as Gervais’ Life’s Too Short, the transition is lined with bed pans, altogether less glamorous. “Because the set was very contained, without many locations, after a while it really started to feel like I was going to work in an old people’s home.”

Not that she would ever downplay carers’ work. One of her strengths as a comic is a down-to-earth persona and an unpretentious, elegantly sarcastic worldview. With appearances on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Live At The Apollo, she’s largely avoided the dreaded actor-comedian tag, a pejorative label in both stand-up and television. Ever since graduating from Rose Bruford College drama school in 1997, she’s increasingly but distinctly distinguished herself in both fields.

At least, until now that is. Because the thirtysomething, mother-of-two young daughters also has an upcoming Radio 4 series, Kerry’s List, written with regular collaborator David Pusey, and co-starring her husband, actor Ben Abell. Borrowing from her 2011 Edinburgh Fringe show Wonder Woman, it’s all about juggling the demands of being a parent, wife, gigging comedian and jobbing actor. Which is a far cry from poor Hannah, “who can’t even get a relationship going, let alone have kids.”

“A couple of people have asked me if I’m going to jack in stand-up, move to LA and do an Ashley Jensen,” she reflects. “It’s a nice problem to fantasise about but I really don’t know. I already laugh at the idea of comics going to Edinburgh with a three-year plan. Some are just obsessed with making it, whatever that means. It’s all careerist bollocks, like a cult. Actually, you’ve made it if you’re earning a living. I’m really lucky to have an actor husband because we can be flexible with our careers and the kids. If he had a nine to five job, I doubt we’d be having this conversation.”

Godliman used to fret that she was over-reliant on her children for material, blunting her edge, but points to the American comedian Louis CK as an example of a comedian reconciling parenting’s mundanity with grander, philosophical issues. And, she says, “you don’t choose your material, it chooses you. And that’s what’s been going on in my life.”

Godliman will soon be seen in in the BBC1 drama Our Girl as a council estate mum with seven children. Yet one of her favourite roles was in Emma Fryer and Neil Edmond’s criminally overlooked 2009 sitcom Home Time, in which she played an aggressive but deluded career woman with no dependents.

“Emma wrote Becky Hogg with me in mind, which I was flattered by and insulted in equal measure,” she laughs. “Deadpan aggression is definitely one of my skills.” In the Derek pilot episode last year, Hannah headbutted a teen who mocked him, suggesting she’s not a plaster saint after all. “She’s really original,” Godliman enthuses. “That compassion twinned with extreme violence is quite interesting. I’ve known people like that, that kind of woman who is a carer up to 11, who will violently protect her ward.”

She remains defensive of Gervais, “a relaxed, lovely man to work with”, and frustrated by suggestions prior to the pilot that Derek was a mental illness caricature. “Having read the script, I knew it wasn’t offensive, so it was exasperating that all the controversy bubbled up. It’s not cruel.”

The first episode seems to address Gervais’ critics directly, with Derek asking a care home inspector, what if he was autistic? What difference does it make to him helping with the home?

“I don’t personally have relatives in a home but I’ve spoken to people that have and they say these storylines are relevant.” Godliman argues. “I think there’s a comedy of cruelty that’s incredibly popular now and that has its place. But Ricky is trying to explore something different here, something not as cynical.

“I wonder if there is going to be a zeitgeist of underworld sitcoms, about the marginalised. Because society truly is funny about old people and mental health.”