My 'Ricky Gervais' story

4 May 2013

I'm writing this blog nearly ten years after my facial disfigurement was mocked on the Ricky Gervais Show on XFM in 2003. I'm writing it because I've just read a newspaper article praising Gervais for supporting a campaign to end the online bullying of people with learning disabilities. I fully support the aims of the anti-bullying campaign.

It's a nice bit of publicity for Gervais (who not long ago took part in Comic Relief in a sketch promoting equality), so I thought I'd balance it by reminding people of my own little story....

In 2003, I was told by the editor of the BBC's disability website Ouch! that he’d heard XFM radio presenters Karl Pilkington, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant making jokes about my facial disfigurement on the Ricky Gervais Show. This was because Pilkington had seen me on a BBC documentary about disfigurement called 'What are you staring at?'
Pilkington referred to me as ‘that woman with the big head, like Bo Selecta’ to much laughter and joked that it's hard to remember that people with facial disfigurements are human because they don't look human. Bo Selecta was a comedy show on Channel 4 where a character wore a mask with a large chin and protruding eyes.

Clip from XFM is here:

It was broadcast 9 August 2003 on series 2 of the Ricky Gervais Show.

You could argue that in the clip, Gervais is challenging Pilkington's comments about my face. But listen to his laughter. He thinks Karl's being funny. Otherwise, why laugh? 

I phoned XFM asking for a recording of the programme and received a CD along with a letter from Pilkington making no apology but inviting me to come on the show and ‘pretend’ to tell him off in a pre-recorded interview and in an ‘informative but entertaining’ way. I still have this letter and will scan and upload as soon as possible.

After listening to the recording, I cried. To have my face mocked by 3 men is one thing. To have my face mocked on the radio for thousands of people to laugh at is sickening. I also felt humiliated that the editor of Ouch, who had employed me to write some columns, had heard me being laughed at in this way.

I felt ugly, powerless and humiliated.

I made an official complaint to XFM and received a letter from the Managing Director of XFM saying he had spoken to the team involved. He wrote 'Being live, sometimes we make inappropriate judgements and for that Karl and the station would like to apologise' and 'I give you my absolute assurance that such comments will not be broadcast on the station again'. I still have this letter and will scan and upload as soon as I can.

I took him at his word and didn’t pursue it any further. Not long after, a teenage boy cycled past me in the street shouting ‘Bo Selecta!’

To gain back some sort of control, I wrote about the XFM incident for the BBC’s disability website Ouch!  It was important for me to talk about it and it made me feel a little less powerless.

A couple of years passed when I discovered by chance that in fact there had been an earlier programme (uploaded on the internet by an XFM fan with the helpful title ‘Bo Selecta – the prequel’) where Pilkington had made jokes after seeing me in the documentary trailer.

Here's the clip:

Worst of all, they had joked about me AFTER I had complained and been told they would stop.

On the programme broadcast 13 December 2003, Gervais asked Karl ‘Where would the woman who complained about you come in your [Freak of the Year] chart?’

Merchant adds ‘That’s the woman with the enormous head [loud snigger from someone] lest we forget’

Clip is here (about 51 mins here)

In that clip, Karl says he was sorry - but to be clear, he never actually said sorry to me.
It could be argued that they're having a go at Karl, but notice the snigger after Merchant's comment.

Merchant then says (after saying I was right to complain):
"I think the fact that she didn't pursue any official complaint means she's a bigger person than you least certainly headwise she is".
(52 minutes in)

Basically, they're having a go at Karl, but still making jokes and laughing and sniggering.
So despite an apology from XFM’s Managing Director on their behalf and a promise they would never joke about me again, they had continued to make fun of my disfigurement with no regard to how this could impact on my mental health. The full episodes of their XFM shows are available on iTunes and YouTube. There is nothing I can do about this.

Did it ever cross the minds of Pilkington, Gervais and Merchant that the ‘woman with the big head’ they were laughing at might be distressed by their jokes? Did it occur to them there was a risk their listeners might think it was acceptable to mock me on the street and on the internet? I think the fact they continued to make jokes, despite my complaint, and have never genuinely apologised answers those questions.

In 2009 I acted in the Channel 4 drama series Cast Offs. After googling my name to find reviews on the show, I came across a Karl Pilkington fan site called Pilkipedia. It has a forum. On the forum are various threads dedicated to cruel jokes about my face, anger from fans that I had complained about the Ricky Gervais Show, and sexual jokes about how I must be good at giving head. One man commented that he'd seen me at a London tube station. It's pretty vile, disablist misogynist stuff.

Some people have said that it is Karl Pilkington I should be having a go at, not Ricky Gervais. But here's what I think:

The show was called The Ricky Gervais Show, so Gervais had full responsibility for what was said on his show.

When Gervais says to Karl 'where would she come in you [freak of the year] chart' he is clearly implying I'm a freak.

Gervais can be heard laughing and sniggering at all the jokes, despite his fake 'ooooh I think we're going too far!' type of comments. He could have stopped it. He didn't. He was like a ring leader of a gang, egging on Pilkington and Merchant, laughing and sniggering, and then claiming ‘it wasn’t me! I didn’t say nuffink!’

In his letter to me, their boss said he'd spoken to the people involved - presumably including Gervais - and that such comments would never be broadcast again.  Gervais, Pilkington and Merchant  clearly didn't follow their boss's promise.

The only reason why I didn't pursue my complaint further is because I'd taken their boss at his word. If I'd known they would continue to make jokes about my face, I would have complained to Ofcom, or whoever the radio regulator was at the time.

I've not contacted Pilkington and Merchant because I doubt they'd give a shit. But Gervais has appeared on Comic Relief promoting equality and a video promoting disabled people's right to employment. (Clip is here as well as saying that he doesn't mock disabled people because he hires disabled actors.

He’s also claimed that he’s not mocking disabled people – he’s mocking the people who mock disabled people (eh?!).  But have a look at this clip about Gervais talking about people with ME. Is he being ironic or taking the piss?

Here's a link to a blog post written by someone with ME about their thoughts on his ME sketch:

All I’ve ever asked for was a genuine apology.  Gervais apologised to people after he was criticised for saying 'mong' on twitter after people complained. He says 'mong' on twitter, it gets on the news, he gets a lot of negative publicity, so he says sorry.

But he has never apologised to me for the jokes he and his colleagues made on HIS radio show about my disfigurement all those years ago, jokes which caused direct hurt and humiliation. It never made the headlines. Perhaps that's why he can't be arsed to apologise.

Of course, I don't hold him purely responsible. I would love an apology from Karl Pilkington and Stephen Merchant too. But at least they're not hypocrites, claiming to be for equality and an ally of disabled people.

So the next time you see Ricky Gervais on Comic Relief promoting equality, or mentioned in the press for supporting a campaign against the bullying of disabled people, remember what happened to me.

Folks - please don't reproduce this blog without asking me first, thanks!

Updated 6 May 2013: I’d forgotten about episode 3!
Just remembered that in total, I’d been discussed on 4 XFM shows, not 3. On 15 November 2003 (48 minutes in) - the 3rd programme where they talk about me - they have an argument about who’s to blame for the jokes about my face. Ricky argues that it’s Karl’s fault and is annoyed that he gets associated with it when Karl upsets people.

They mention my complaint:

KP “I never meant to upset anyone with that...”
RG “Karl is bad for our reputation....”

Show is here (48 mins in):

Fair enough. I’ve never claimed it was just Gervais and I’ll freely admit that the worse comments came from Pilkington and Merchant. In fact, the comments that upset me the most are the jokes from Stephen Merchant about me being a bigger person than Karl ‘headwise’. There’s real cruelty there.

But if Karl genuinely felt bad about upsetting me then a) why didn’t he apologise in his letter to me b) why did he invite me to come on the show and only ‘pretend’ to tell him off, which was frankly an insult, and c) why has he never actually apologised to me directly?

And as for the ‘It was Karl wot dunnit!’ defence – it was your show Ricky, you brought up the discussions about my complaint, and you laughed your head off. If you really did feel bad, why mention me again on two further programmes AFTER I'd complained and AFTER your boss said no further comments about me would be made?

If all three of them had stopped after the 2nd episode (the 'bo selecta' one) then I could have forgotten all about it and moved on. It's the fact they went against their boss's promise to me and continued that makes their behaviour indefensible.

Update: 6 May 2013

I’ve had an email today from a former administrator of Pilkipedia to say that: “all offending threads referencing you and / or jokes about your appearance were removed. This isn't meant as an excuse for the creation of the threads in the first place, obviously what has happened has happened and cannot be removed from history, but I just wanted you to be aware of the steps that have been taken since.”

This is great news and I truly appreciate that he did that and took the time to let me know.

The comments on the Pilkipedia fansite were some of the worst disablist, misogynist shite I’ve ever read and I’m sure Karl would be glad to know he’s no longer associated with such comments from his fans.....