In Recognition of Ricky, Tom , Ben, J.D and J.K
I’ve been waiting some time now for a character that I enjoy watching. But, like buses, three (well, let’s call it three) came along at once. While I was waiting, my imagination burnt off frustration by inventing the women I’d like to write, create, bring to life. They live in my thoughts, these unnamed profiles, these clusters of habits, running havoc in snatched moments then lassoed back to earth by the shitty, gritty reality of working single parenthood. But, this ain’t a moan. This is process – this is change – this is my bottom-up thinking playing cognitive dot-to-dot until the vague big picture becomes clear, and women like Hannah, Julia and Maggie go miles to help this process by offering robust representations of women who are usually either left out, marginalised or reduced to stereotype.
But, before the recent round of drama and sitcom watching in the midst of this autumnal burn-out (an exercise in regaining tranquility and clawing back lost balance), I’d been reading hungrily all summer, late into sleepless nights. In late August I’d picked up three secondhand reads: Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – two parts fiction to one part memoir. I flew through Perrotta’s novel, then re-read it, analysing the structure, impressed by the interweaving of the main characters and how an inevitable ending was measured out in such a way that when the final pages closed the moment was both simple and immensely rewarding (weeks later, I picked up J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, determined to somehow absorb the principles of narrative structure without a Masters course to help me).
Next, Vance’s rich, reflective piece served to expand my thinking on class and privilege, refining the darkling thoughts which twist and turn around my everyday reality, demanding to be understood. In his unique experiences, Vance identified strongly with other marginalised, underprivileged groups within society, and I in turn recognised all too familiar patterns and thought perhaps I saw the means by which tables can be turned, or at least dismantled. I realised long ago I had attributed ignorance to a character failing, a fixed quality from which I couldn’t escape. Furthermore, I was cut off from sources of ‘social capital’ by not only my background but by the complexities of my neurology that meant my attention was literally elsewhere while others were learning to network, to play the predominant games humans play to connect, progress and succeed. I didn’t see alternative or difference, I felt lonely and trapped within myself, my body and mind a non-porous boundary in a rapid, socially instinctive world.
As an associative thinker with a penchant for literature, I’m certainly not moored by my own perspective. I climb into others’ shoes with startling efficiency, to the point I can almost lose grip on, and in doing so devalue, my own position. Yet, what I have found – and Vance is not there yet and how I wish to hear his thoughts when he is – is that my children present fixed points of focus for me. Furthermore, in considering their lives and what I, as their parent, can reasonably hope to provide, I find my own identity, my own boundaries, settle into solidity. I read Vance’s explanations of inter-generational toxic legacy (my words, not his), where behavioural habits are so ingrained by conditioning or neurology or both that in fact all it takes is morally corrupt politicians to shut down SureStart centres, slash social care and education budgets to systematically strip back any chance of social mobility for those not born into positions of social privilege. I wondered how ‘social capital’ works when your natural instinct isn’t to conform, when the pressure to conform is a demand too far.
But let’s return to Hannah, Ricky Gervais’ care home manager in his series Derek. Hannah left school with no qualifications and began working in the care home – it defined her, but didn’t impose itself upon her. From a low socio-economic background, she fell into a role which many would perceive to be lacking in aspiration and yet... with consummate confidence Gervais has created a world in which Hannah is complete. The symbiotic relationship between Derek and Hannah is one of beauty: they are equals and of mutual benefit to one another. As Gervais himself commented in an interview on BBC Breakfast in 2014,’Derek’s me before the weight of the world started bearing down on me – I’d love to have a friend like Derek.’ In these words, I think I hear a person who has experienced difference to a degree where it is fact in the norm and thus embodies that acceptance to such a degree that he refuses to label (‘What’s his condition?’) and instead demonstrates such a powerful model of inclusion and equality it leapfrogs our current cultural norm. You only have to watch the scene where a care home inspector delicately attempts to raise the issue of Derek’s situation to appreciate what Gervais is doing for many, many marginalised, mute individuals – rendered voiceless by the brutal societal forces that decided long ago what weak meant and that it didn’t have value. Even the inspector who engages with Derek, involves him in the conversation, endeavouring to model appropriate and respectful professionalism is swiftly – ‘...is he handicapped?’ ‘Yeah he’s too nice for his own good.’ – and cleanly ‘Will I be the same person (post-assessment)?’ – dispatched by Hannah and Derek himself – ‘Don’t worry about it then’ – and in one short conversation we see a reality where individuals can and should be accepted and respected for who they are without the need to classify and pigeonhole.
Hannah’s character gets on with life, she despises bullshit and literally headbutts cruelty. Hannah works the hours of a highly ambitious business woman yet her financial reward is slim: instead, she has grown to understand life and death, she has seen the moments that really matter and moves through life with a strength of mind and firmness of self that allow her to be happy in unconventional circumstances – something which Gervais does use for comic effect. In short, Hannah’s character has become a beacon for me: she may be fictional but her essence is real. She doesn’t do anything with intention, she just lives life the way she believes it ought to be lived and for that I deeply admire Gervais and needless to say the actress, Kerry Godliman, who portrayed her with such conviction.
Hannah and Julia are positioned a world apart, for fictional Julia lives in Melbourne, Australia, yet as characters they have evolved from a similar source of emotional energy and moral fibre. Julia is an EAL teacher who has spent most of her adult life caring for a sick parent, firstly her mother and then her father. Julia is a woman different from the inside out and hers is a character type that could be easily, lazily reduced to a stock set of bohemian traits: big hair, colour-clash wardrobe and dysfunctional not to mention disastrous one-night stands. Yet, within the context of Sisters, her character is but one in a line-up of strongly drawn women, who exercise their right to succeed, be happy, and feel love as much as they muck up, lose their temper, and fail. When our emotional compasses spin, directionless, there is nothing more comforting than watching others falter, dig in and keep going – and sometimes there is no nicer way of learning these life lessons than by watching other positive role models. Julia, her sisters, other mature female characters, stand astride a personal threshold held in place by the limitations which have determined their present situation, but lean toward an awareness that opportunity lies beyond the status quo, that they themselves have the power to make things better.
Lastly, Maggie from Extras. Maggie lives in the quiet place where my thoughts simmer down, where my passion and positivity curls up and crawls under a duvet and there I am grateful for Maggie. Labelled by critics as ‘adorable but dim’ and ‘buffoonish, shag-hungry’ I can’t help but see familiar shadows dancing within Maggie’s character. What is that frown other than the perpetual confusion of a woman who is not stupid but can never quite jump aboard conversation at the right time?
The trap which ultimately snaps shut tight on Maggie, forcing her to move out of her small fairylit flat, is in fact a slow pincer movement traced back to the very start. Maggie tries and tries to connect, to succeed and time after time she’s knocked back, unacknowledged, ignored. This isn’t just about a failed acting career, as Derek isn’t just about an old people’s home. For a while, she seeks to connect in the only way she can, through sexual relationships, but then she gives up on that, stung by humiliation. Maggie doesn’t deserve to be stuck in the limbo she is in and she is a character trapped by her own unquestioning acceptance that her struggles are her own fault, silently shouldering shame. Andy ridicules Maggie in a way that Hannah never would Derek, for their relationship illustrates the unhappy line between sympathetic company and mutual misery veering towards co-dependency. Poor Maggie, yet important Maggie, for this character ought to wake us up, make us question what we expect for ourselves, our sisters, our daughters.
P.S. Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’ is a wonderfully crisp and enjoyable read, set in parts of London I know well; thus demonstrating in a very concrete way the need to see ourselves, or at least parts of ourselves, in writing and on screen. It can feel like a very lonely world if nothing is familiar...
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts.