TV Preview: Derek | Crucifixion | The Mighty Mississippi

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Andrea Mullaney previews a selection of TV choices for the week ahead.

On Channel 4’s opening night in 1982, its first drama was the touching Walter, starring Ian McKellen as a gentle and misunderstood man with learning difficulties. Walter was much acclaimed (a radio sequel was made three years ago), but also controversial and so set the pattern for the channel’s early years, when it pushed TV boundaries and gloried in experimentation. Younger viewers won’t think of C4 that way; it has long since abandoned the worthy for the wacky and, after a decade of Big Brother, its headline-grabbing fare is about gypsies, dwarves, “the undateables” and so on. Exploitation, say some; a modern way to cover people marginalised by society, say others.

Having created all his previous TV work – from the brilliance of The Office to the awful disappointment of Life’s Too Short – for BBC2, Ricky Gervais has now moved over to Channel 4 for Derek, a pilot for a possible series. And given the tightrope that Gervais constantly walks, it’s understandable that the first thing one might think upon seeing this “new” character (Derek first appeared in his stand-up set a decade ago) is: well, of course he went there. Only today’s C4 would embrace a bad taste sitcom about a man with learning difficulties from the man whose Twitter account brought us “Mong-gate”. Here comes a half-hour’s excruciating mockery of difference, pretending to be laughing with the vulnerable but really laughing at them, from a millionaire comedian who’s disappeared up his own backside. Let the outrage begin.

But half an hour later, what I was thinking about was an earlier Channel 4 and Walter. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gervais (who featured McKellen in a memorable episode of Extras) remembers it too, because while it’s a completely different kind of thing, there’s something of Walter in Derek and not just a physical similarity. Now, Gervais has denied that his character is meant to have learning difficulties, but this must be simply nervousness about not wanting to have the condition pinned down. Perhaps a vaguer way of describing him would be the euphemistic old expression: he’s not quite the full shilling. Derek sticks his jaw out like a bulldog; he has a Hitler hairdo and wears a cheap anorak and a messenger bag carefully slung across his body; he loves the old people at the care home where he works “because they’re the kindest to me”. His “favouritest” thing on YouTube is a video called Hamster On The Piano, which he delightedly watches over and over (it will lodge in your brain). Derek also loves Hannah (Kerri Godliman), the nice, downtrodden care worker, with a pure, puppyish love. In turn, she defends him against heartless sneers and enjoys his funny habits.

You can see a little of Dawn from The Office in her and Tim in her potential love interest. But you can only very briefly see David Brent in Gervais’ Derek, which is a tremendous relief after years when it seemed he could play nothing else. It’s still a mockumentary, of course: Gervais seems to be unable to conceive of his characters being unaware of the cameras, even if in Derek’s case, for once, he’s not playing up to them in the hope of fame. Apparently celebrity cameos were wisely cut out – they would have ruined it, because this is a return to the theme of The Office, if not its setting: an ordinary place and its people, rather than the world of the famous and wannabes.

There’s slapstick too and at times Derek strays into Norman Wisdom territory, a hapless little man falling over. But then, round about the same time as Channel 4 began, even Norman Wisdom went serious, playing a dying cancer patient in Going Gently. Sooner or later all clowns want to play Hamlet. And by the end of Derek, Ricky Gervais attempts something deeply sincere, an unashamedly sentimental portrait of innocent goodness. It’s startling and if you can go with it, it works. Dramatically it’s no Walter, but it’s not sensationalist exploitation either. Gervais is still walking a taste tightrope and for some, this will be too wobbly. People will legitimately question his taking on learning difficulties for comic purposes. But it’s impossible not to see the heart in it too.

Once Crucifixion might have been one of those trademark Channel 4 shocks, perhaps back in 2002 when there were record complaints about a televised public autopsy carried out by the anatomist/sensationalist Dr Gunther von Hagens. Now, though, this latest von Hagens stunt seems merely tiresome. The plan was to recreate a crucified figure on a cross, using casts made from human bones, and present it to the Pope, to make some sort of point. But von Hagens’ illness (he has Parkinson’s syndrome) leads to a rethink and despite the programme’s claims that the end result is his “masterpiece,” it’s hard to see that his artwork really has anything new to say – especially after the many other powerful images of the Crucifixion shown in an attempt to pad things out.

And finally, file it under Things You Never Thought You’d See: Sir Trevor McDonald being hoisted atop a cheerleader pyramid, tottering but gamely waving his arms. This unexpected vision comes during the veteran newsman’s nice American holiday – er, investigation of the history and landscape around The Mighty Mississippi river. And who can begrudge him? Go Trevor!


Thursday, Channel 4, 10pm


Sunday, Channel 4, 10pm

The Mighty Mississippi With Trevor McDonald

Tuesday, STV, 9pm