Thursday, 7 February 2013

We need to talk about Derek.

What’s your favourite version of Nessun Dorma? I bet it’s that Pavarotti one. It was the anthem to the Italia World Cup in 1990, Using it was a brilliant editorial decision (if you’re prepared to overlook the fact that it was used a few months before on a Pirelli advert) and it brought a stunning piece of music to a new audience.

Two years later, as a timid 19-year-old working at Radio Five, I found a new version of Nessun Dorma, a promo CD sent into the office. It was the same lavish orchestral score, but, instead of being sung by Pavarotti, it was being sung by Neil Sedaka.

He had written his own lyrics.

It’s a CD I treasure. It’s almost majestic in its arrogance. Here are the lyrics to the refrain (typed from memory):

To touch the face of friends and loved ones
To hear the laughter and to feel... the pain,
Oh what a miracle, this would be
If only we
Could turn the haaaaands of time...
Turning back... The hands of... Ti-ime...

It was so easy to imagine him typing through the tears as he brought these beautiful words to life, so in love was he with his creation.

But hey, let’s talk about Derek.

Formerly, of course 'Derek the Mong' from the 11 O'Clock Show. There’s little point in raking over the issue of is-this-offensive-to-people-with-learning-difficulties. You will doubtless have your own opinion (which I’d love to hear, by the way). In the first episode we are confronted with the issue of ‘What’s wrong with Derek?’ and, perhaps a little evasively, we are told that he’s really, one of a kind. He hasn’t heard of autism (and, incidentally, neither does he display any signs of autism) and, like his employer, it seems, we are simply supposed to shrug our shoulders and leave our curiosity at that.

And Derek is one of a kind. A curious combination of nervous tics, gurning, and conjugating his verbs like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins ‘I draws what Oi loikes, an’ Oi loikes what Oi drew’. But his eyes are alert, playing to camera in a way I have seen somewhere before... David Brent, conceivably? Derek has a simplicity to him, a cheeky, playful mischievous side, and - you know what? A bloody heart of gold, mate. A big old heart, made of solid bloody gold. Bless him.

It’s set in an old folks’ home. The supporting cast is a curious collection. There is Dougie, a somewhat cantankerous caretaker who is mates with Derek, even though the two of them treat each other with seeming contempt. There is Kev, a man who doesn’t work there, but simply attempt to have sex with everything in sight, including the inmates. And there is Hannah, the boss, described by Derek as the nicest most kindest person ever. That she may be, but I find her staff screening policy pretty abysmal, letting a sex maniac infest her Care Home.

The character who, for me, had the most potential, appeared in episode two, a young woman called Vicky who had been given Community Service order, even though it’s now called Community Payback. She came in with an attitude. Holli Dempsey played the part brilliantly - in fact the cast is generally fantastically talented, and perform as well as they can within the confines of the script, and I look forward to Ruth Bratt’s appearance later in the series as Derek’s girlfriend. Within a week or so of arriving, the Care Home and the brilliant people there has worked its brilliant magic and Vicky thinks it’s brilliant and has gone from juvenile delinquent to wanting to volunteer at the Home next week because it’s so bloody brilliant there.

And here, for me, is where Neil Sedaka’s Nessun Dorma comes in. You get the sense that the writer (who, in the case of Derek, happens to be the director and star) is so deeply in love with what he’s writing that he’s lost any awareness of how it will appear to the audience. And the way it appears is pretty clunky.

My problem with Derek is that I felt a bit patronised as a viewer. I was never really allowed to make up my own mind about how I felt about anything or anyone in the show. I was told that Hannah is the nicest kindest lady. I was told that Derek is the nicest bloke in the world, and that I shouldn't have any further curiosity about his history thank you. Apparently, the Care Home is the most bloody brilliant place ever, even though I saw little evidence to support that. 

I was never allowed to form my own conclusion. In a very passive-aggressive way, the script pushed me into line, leaving no moments of ambiguity, no opportunity to make my own way through the material presented. I’ll compare it to The Office, simply because the format is so similar: no-one ever had to tell us David Brent was an arse - it was as clear as day. No-one had to tell us Tim was a nice guy. We could figure it out for ourselves through their actions.

Episode Two of Derek ended with a long tracking shot across some of the old lags in the Home, dozing, intercut with home movies from the fifties, presumably their faded dreams. It was a little too soon to be shown these intimate memories, since we’d hardly exchanged a word with them and we didn't know who they were. But it did go to show that old people, like Derek, are bloody brilliant, too. It’s all bloody brilliant, actually. It’s all so bloody brilliant. GOOD FOR DEREK.

If only we
Could turn back the haaands of time...