The Disabled Britain on Film collection undermines any simplistic notion of everything steadily improving. It complicates our understandings of how disabled people have been seen—and how they see themselvesby Tom Shakespeare / May 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
My first experience of television was a momentary appearance on the documentary Born to be Small (1973). My father, William Shakespeare, was one of the stars, who all had restricted growth, and the film was made by Lord Snowden—himself a survivor of polio. The aim was to show that people with restricted growth could lead normal lives, and the subjects came out with their dignity intact. Snowden’s Committee on Integration—of which my dad was a member—had been working through the 1970s to attempt top-down change. Within a few years, though, grassroots organisations would assert themselves and split off from the disability establishment that Snowden embodied, a move crystallised in the creation of the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People in 1981.
It’s now easy to look back at any representation of disabled people before the modern disability rights movement as negative. The theme of the new BFI collection Disabled Britain on Film, which is free to access online, is how to learn from the past so as to inform the future. While these films are a gift to cultural historians everywhere, at the same time they undermine any simplistic notion of everything steadily improving. They complicate our understandings of how disabled people have been seen—and how they see themselves.
The disability rights movement was as necessary as it was radical, but that does not mean that everything that came before was tarnished. There are certainly lots of pity narratives in the BFI Collection, and a fair bit of charity. But stories such as that of Joyce Carpenter (1972), at 29 inches the smallest woman in the world, are devoid of condescension, and feature disabled voices. (Although as we listen to her discuss the problems of household chores and going to the post office, banality is always a risk.) In Blind Farmer (1978) we get five minutes in the life of Blake Brown, showing how family dynamics change when a father has visual impairment: his wife built the cattle-shed, the children take it in turns to do the milking, but there is the strong feeling of the family getting on with rural life as usual. It’s all very matter-of-fact.
Many of these are not patronising films, whether it’s a clip of Shaun Rowhead (1979) hitting his archery target repeatedly from his wheelchair, or Mike in Able Yachtsman (1983), who does not let paralysis stop him sailing—and believes that it doesn’t matter whether or not he can swim, because if anything were to go wrong, he’d be a gonner anyway. This sense of agency comes across, too, in the footage of a disability protest from 1977, with Labour minister David Ennals MP being cornered by disabled people furious that the government was going to take away the familiar blue three-wheel invalid carriages. Some things have changed, of course. Not even Ricky Gervais at his most provocative could title a film East End Cripples Enjoy a Happy Day’s Outing in Epping Forest (1911).
Modern representations offer a more creative take, and not only on disability in the present but also in the past. For example, a short film by the disabled filmmaker Liz Crow, entitled Resistance (2008), enables us to visualise the daily workings of the Nazi euthanasia programme. The “White coats, black boots” of the SS come to take away the disabled residents of an institution who have been selected to die, while we see the grotesque celebrations of the team operating the centres as they hit their murder quota.
All this is true—exactly these things really happened—but I’ve never seen it portrayed so graphically and imaginatively, with a cast that’s like a Who’s Who of disabled actors including Jamie Beddard and Mat Fraser (who has also played Richard III). Crow is rare: there are still very few disabled people writing and directing, despite the work of the BBC Disability Programmes Unit in the 1990s, and disabled directors such as David Hevey.
Several more recent films in this Collection put people with learning difficulties in the picture. Access All Areas Theatre Company rap out their “Trapped Rhythms” (2016) music video about St Lawrence’s Hospital in Caterham, Surrey, which is where the people originally called “feeble-minded” were incarcerated. Then from 2017, Sharif Persaud describes his contemporary life with autism, all the time wearing an Al Murray mask, and ending up in discussion with the comedian himself. I found the wonderful animation, A is for Autism (1992) in the collection too—reminding us that imaginative documentary can interpret for us the experiences and outlooks of others, growing our empathy and understanding.
This highlights what a source of creativity and joy the diverse experiences of disability can be. It reminds me of disabled comics, such as the (hard of hearing) Eric Sykes and the (bipolar) Spike Milligan. Acting is not just about words. It is about communicating with bodies and emotions. Performers, including performers with learning difficulties, can be superb silent actors, or when they use words give them new meanings.
A good example is Tommy Jessup, the actor with Down’s syndrome, playing Hamlet, and giving his audience goosebumps when he recites “We fools of nature.” There is enormous value in viewing great texts through different lenses and via different bodies. Even the most fluent of raconteurs, Dave Allen, used his missing little finger to humorous advantage.
But it’s worth reminding ourselves of what still needs to change. Clearly those patronising tones about the tragic-but-brave child, or alternatively those triumph-over-tragedy stories, are outdated and inappropriate. And yet such voyeuristic documentaries about surgeries and cures still pop up on our screens, manipulating our emotions and perpetuating stereotypes.
We should also ask who it is that gets to perform. Years before The Elephant Man (1980), the BFI collection shows us the able-bodied John Hurt as a disabled teenager at a youth club in The Contact (1963). The message of the film is all about inclusion—a very contemporary message, although the youth club might these days have fallen victim to cuts. You might hope that today it would be a disabled actor playing that role. Except we still see non-disabled performers like Bryan Cranston portraying a wheelchair user in The Upside, and Charlie Heaton taking the lead in the remake of—you guessed it—The Elephant Man.
We want to see more disabled actors both as the leads, but also as extras. Disabled people in ordinary roles is what “mainstreams” disability—just like colour-blind casting. We’re delighted by (wheelchair user) Liz Carr as Clarissa in Silent Witness, or (cerebral palsy) RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr in Breaking Bad, or Coronation Street’s Melissa Johns, who has one arm, or restricted growth actor Lisa Hammond, the market trader in EastEnders. We want to see more please.
Disabled actors and audiences are furious about what is often called “cripping up.” Even a wonderful film like The Shape of Water relied on Sally Hawkins acting mute, rather than finding a disabled actor who could inhabit the same role and make it about more than simply a deficit. Producers tell us that there are no big-name disabled actors out there who can ensure the success of a film. But surely there is no prospect of getting to that point if disabled actors are not given the chance to shine and grow in the first place.
There was, in fact, a time when there were more actors with disabilities, especially after the wars. Leslie Banks served at the Somme and ended up facially scarred and partially paralysed: no more leading man roles for him, although he was good as the eccentric detective who solves The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939). His versatility was demonstrated by his Earl of Leicester in Fire Over England (1937) as well as the sinister squire who is revealed as the Nazi villain of Went the Day Well? (1942). Only Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor who after being paralysed in a riding accident took on a few roles in the late 1990s, has done anything similar in recent times.
Moves forward are too often accompanied by another slip backwards. The BFI Diversity Standard, launched in association with this collection, is intended to change this. Applying in addition to Film4 and BBC Films and Bafta, this requires filmmakers to demonstrate commitment to inclusion in at least two of the following areas: on screen; creative leadership; industry access and training; exhibition. The diversity standard refers to age, disability, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ+, religion, belief, location and socioeconomic background.
This shows how diverse diversity can be (and how some people experience multiple disadvantage). But at least, for those in the industry, it will mean there is some stick to go with the carrot.
The situation is changing very slowly. But to nudge things in the right direction, the important thing is to question and think deeply. Because disabled people don’t all agree on what “good representation” is. There are mixed feelings about The Undateables, the television show about people with disabilities looking for love. Some adore it, and believe it challenges our thinking about disability and romance. Others find it patronising and question why disabled singles have to be ghettoised into a separate show about their quest for love, rather than being in a mainstream dating show. Gervais himself has parodied our well-meaning and politically correct efforts, but has in turn been pilloried for Derek or Life’s Too Short, with Warwick Davis. It’s a fine line and neither disabled people nor the wider public are necessarily going to agree about exactly where to draw it.
Disability is surely, if it is about anything, about struggle. Both overcoming deficits of body or mind, and also barriers of attitude or policy. And that struggle plays brilliantly on film. Which is why Richard Curtis included a deaf brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and wheelchair-using Gina in Notting Hill. It’s like the three-legged dog that Ken Loach includes in his movies, the underdog who fights back.
This collection represents disability coming of age. There is so much to see here, and so many stories still to be told, so many different perspectives on life and art to share. But some of these narratives may be endangered, as Yiddish was once endangered. The old settings that fostered them—day centres and residential institutions—may, for good reasons or ill, have been closed down.
Sometimes technologies are rendering old corners of the culture redundant—like cochlear implants for deaf people, or smartphone messaging, which may liberate some individuals, but also mean the end for the community that used to be rooted in deaf clubs and the practice of signing.
Genetic testing could, in time, also mean society has less diversity. Advocates of the flourishing creative contributions of people with Down’s syndrome, for example, like the actor (and mother) Sally Phillips, tell us to record Down’s syndrome culture before the community becomes too small to be able to sustain its own idiom.
We may all be at risk of disability, but disability is always at risk.
Watch the BFI Disabled Britain on Film here