Watching Jack Thorne’s speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival, AYT’s Outreach Officer, Naomi was left upset for a whole host of reasons. She knew things were bad for disabled people, but not quite this bad. But his speech was a powerful one. Will it finally make the gatekeepers sit up and take notice?
The first time I ever had a meeting ‘for TV – via a scheme purported to help disabled people get into the industry – the commissioner entered the battery chicken pen in which we’d been stashed, looked me up and down, and in a stentorious manner, barked: “What’s wrong with YOU?” Amazingly this did not lead to a job. Another ‘increasing disabled talent in TV’ programme from a major non-terrestrial broadcaster flared then fizzled out like a dud firework when it transpired they had booked a non-accessible basement audition suite. I don’t know if anyone got jobs from it. And my own passion project, an audacious comedy-drama about a group of disabled people who form a criminal heist gang (tagline: ‘Oceans 11 with Wheelchairs’) has been stuck in development hell for years, despite the unwavering support of some wonderful but it has to be said non-disabled executives.
I left TV and turned to theatre, where I’ve mostly had a good career. Theatre too, was the spawning ground for legendary screenwriter (though best known to theatre fans for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) Jack Thorne, who despite growing up passionate about TV worked as a playwright for years before landing his first TV credit, with early plays staged at the Bush, Finborough and Arcola Theatres. His TV work since has included such hits as the BAFTA-winning The Fades, This Is England ’88 and ’90 and most recently the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials.
On Monday, aptly the eve of the 16th Paralympic Games, Thorne delivered the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. This was a truly remarkable plea on behalf of disabled people, disabled talent, and disabled stories.
Thorne – who was disabled through chronic illness for many years, no longer identifies as such, but considers himself to be ‘part of the disabled community’. His speech started off lightly enough before he dropped a bomb, calling 2020 the ‘Year of Ableism’. The year disabled people died. The year disabled people were left to die. The year of care homes abandoned, lack of PPE, disabled people denied ventilators. A year in which the Tories’ magical get-out-of-jail-free catchphrase “Underlying Conditions” created a two-tier society of what were perceived as acceptable deaths and unacceptable deaths.
Thorne went on to describe his own experiences with chronic illness and how finding the disabled theatre company, Graeae gave him a sense not just of community but of his identity as a disabled person. He spoke about trying and “mostly failing” to use his privilege as an educated white male and later a successful screenwriter to boost other disabled artists in an industry that, fundamentally, has failed disabled people. How disability is excluded from conversations about marginalisation. How “the TV world is stacked against the telling of disabled stories by disabled talent.” Pulling no punches, he shared shocking stories of disabled artists being forced to crawl, to abstain from eating and drinking due to lack of access to a toilet, of being bullied and marginalised and disregarded. He shared the fact that even his own numerous TV series that featured disability were almost all given a fraction of the budget of any standard TV drama.
Most importantly, he delineated what’s needed to fix things: attitude change, an increase in accessibility, and quotas for disabled talent. He announced that he and his fellow disabled artists, Genevieve Barr and Katie Player have founded a pressure group called Underlying Health Condition to try to hold the industry accountable and to try to “make every space accessible and create rules for the building of further spaces.”
I don’t generally put myself into these articles, but I cried a lot watching this. Cried and got angry then got sad again. Because I knew things were bad, but I didn’t know they were that bad. If even a multi-BAFTA winner has to finance his TV series that happen to have disabled characters out of tiny documentary or history funds, what hope is there for me? What hope for my friends, who are disabled and women, or disabled and BIPOC, or disabled and working class, or any combination of the above? How do we even start to have a conversation about privilege and intersectionality, when a whole entire marginalised group don’t even have a seat at the table?
Are things any better in theatre? Theatre has certainly been better for me, and the existence of companies like Graeae and the sheer number of disabled theatre companies in the UK suggests that this industry is better at carving out space for disabled artists. But ableism and lack of access are still major problems in theatre. Theatre has traditionally been a major pipeline into TV, with many of our most exciting screenwriters coming in via theatre. But if that pipeline is blocked to an entire category of writers, TV’s crucial role as what Thorne describes as an “empathy machine” will be jaundiced. And let’s face it, there’s no money in theatre.
Still, Thorne’s words clearly had an effect, creating a firestorm on social media, in the industry press, and a whole two articles in the Guardian. The following day, Channel 4’s Director of Programming, Ian Katz announced that, “On the back of Jack Thorne’s MacTaggart Lecture, [he] commits to commissioning at least one major drama in 2022 from a disabled writer.” As I sarcastically remarked on Twitter, “Really excited for the opportunity to cage fight all other disabled writers for the ONE TV commission an entire huge diverse group of people is allowed.” But maybe it’ll come down to who screams the loudest.
Jack Thorne spent a fair bit of his speech self-flagellating for being a coward, and for failing and not doing more, which as someone who has written and regretted writing far too many bridge-burning “your attitude towards disability and access sucks” emails, I have mixed feelings about. Bravery is not always in speaking up and charging in but knowing when to keep your powder dry. Thorne ended by quoting the words of director and Graeae Associate Director Nickie Miles-Wildin: “We are all pre-disabled, so whether it’s in self-interest or in the interests of others, the time has come to scream.” His speech was nothing less than the most eloquent and incendiary 39-minute long scream anyone has ever heard. He screamed, and people heard. I guess I’m screaming too, in writing this, and maybe no one will hear yet, but they will. I have to believe, for all of us, that one day they will.
Twitter thread from Jack Thorne after his speech
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