Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 19 December 2011

Ricky's too short. On ideas.

I have followed the career of Ricky Gervais since the late 1990s with great interest.

I first recall seeing him playing an obnoxious character on Channel 4's 11 O'Clock Show where he seemed to be deliberately trying to offend as many people as possible. Not long after this there was an attempt at a parody of a chat show called Meet Ricky Gervais which is now largely forgotten but I thought at the time was a brave attempt to extend the "obnoxious persona" into the field of chat. Not least because again he retained his actual name rather than making it clear he was playing a character like Alan Partridge or Mrs Merton who were clear antecedents.

I probably don't need to go into detail about Gervais's most famous creation The Office which followed soon after and which in my view is one of the greatest sitcoms of the last 20 years. He also produced another hit sitcom, Extras which although not achieving the same level of accolades as its predecessor was nonetheless very good and ensured he would not just be remembered as a one-trick sitcom pony.

So I had high hopes for his latest sitcom creation Life's Too Short starring Warwick Davis. It is supposedly a fly on the wall documentary about "the life of a showbiz dwarf". Sadly it has not lived up to my expectations.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the underlying concept. I imagine that done well this could have been a good way of highlighting the sort of prejudice that people with disabilities can encounter. The problem is it has not been done well.

The character of "Warwick Davis" played by Warwick Davis is clearly a caricature. He is vain, self-serving, grasping and regularly gets himself into traps of his own making where he ends up embarrassed and looking stupid. Does this remind you of anyone. That could have been a  verbatim description of the character of David Brent from The Office. Even some of the mannerisms and asides that Davis employs are textbook Brent. It's almost as if he has studied Gervais's previous creation and used it as a basis for his performance here.

So we've seen it all before. Which means that many of the scenes are groaningly predictable. Davis goes on a date arranged through an agency and feels that he has been misled by the picture of his date not making it clear she is also a dwarf. Perhaps this is supposed to be ironic but it is almost identical to a scene from the final Christmas special of The Office where Brent goes on a date with a woman he has met through the internet and also feels he has been misled about her looks. Davis muscles into an interview with the head of an activist organisation he is involved with and says a load of politically incorrect stuff which, surprise, surprise ends up being edited out of the broadcast interview. Davis offers to make a speech at the wedding of someone who has hired him because he and his wife are sci-fi fans (Davis has starred in a number of such films) and he makes an idiot of himself by making a terrible and insulting speech. Etc. etc. etc.

Life's Too Short is not just derivative of the Brent character, it also purloins what was probably the best character from Extras. In that sitcom Stephen Merchant (Gervais's writing partner) played Darren Lamb, Andy Millman's (the main character's) agent. He was completely clueless and regularly made comments that made it clear he didn't know what he was doing. Merchant's performance was superb; he managed to find just the right balance between likability as a wide eyed ingenue but also doing enough to screw up Millman's career at every turn. Davis's character in LTS has an accountant (Eric Biddle) who is clearly based on the Lamb character, useless at his job, having landed Davis with a massive tax bill through his errors but has none of the charm of the Merchant performance. And Davis even goes on to use Biddle as his solicitor in his divorce even though he is terrible and is not even legally qualified. I know it's only a sitcom but the universe for these things need to be a bit believable.

But what's worse is that the whole thing seems to be exploiting Davis and those with dwarfism more generally. The scenes where Johnny Depp has Davis dancing along to a flute while he shouts at him and separately standing in a toilet, all the while Depp appearing to be bizarrely excited by his height are difficult to view as anything other than distasteful, however many layers of irony we are supposed to be filtering it through. And the scene where he gets locked in a bathroom whilst house viewing because he can't reach the handle and ends up throwing his shoes at the window followed by falling off the toilet when his assistant comes to rescue him are in a similar vein. I expect we were supposed to be laughing at the thoughtlessness of those who locked him in but whichever way you look at it it ends up being "dwarf falls off toilet".

There are flickers and glimmers of what this programme could have been. Gervais and Merchant actually appear in multiple episodes as "themselves" (i.e. parodies of themselves trying to get Davis out of their office as quickly as possible and clearly finding him tiresome). In one of these scenes in "Gervais's" "office" Liam Neeson walks in unannounced and demands to be trained in improvised comedy but has some preconceived ideas about how this should work which as a dynamic worked very well and there was a payoff line at the end of the scene that had me laughing for several minutes. Another scene which starts off in a rather embarrassing way with Davis trying to get out of giving a child with a tumour a free signed book ends amusingly with his prediction of "everyone is going to be saying that" coming true immediately. But there are far too many misses for these little moments to make up for it.

Gervais clearly has lots of talent as The Office, Extras and his sell-out tours as well as his widely admired radio work shows but overall it is a disappointing effort from him this time round. I wonder if he now needs to move outside his sitcom comfort zone of deliberately un-PC fake fly-on-the-wall documentaries as he essentially now just repeating himself for rapidly diminishing returns.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

1 comment:

Lady Virginia Droit de Seigneur said...

Ever since The Office my suspicion has been that there isn't a great deal of acting going in with Gervais' screen characters and that he really is an obnoxiousn tw*t. His appearances on An Idiot Abroad and his recent mong comments tend to confirm this view.