Francesca Martinez: All talk, no proper change

TV producers still won’t allow writers and performers with disabilities to tell their own stories.

How do we bring more diversity to our TV and cinema screens? This is a subject I’m regularly asked to speak about. I’ve been on panels, in workshops, and delivered keynotes on this issue over the last 20 years for a variety of organisations, including all the major broadcasters. It appears to be a popular pastime for media folk: gathering and pondering this seemingly complex question with furrowed brows and pursed lips. Of course, the solution is simple – if you want more diversity on screen, put more diversity on screen. Problem sorted. Now let’s have a cuppa.

Progress is staggeringly slow. When I was speaking at a recent BFI Film Festival event, it was interesting to see how the debate has shifted. People were no longer just concerned with the number of disabled characters in TV and lm, but also with the quality of those parts. In short, if we want truly authentic portrayals of disabled characters, we must give disabled writers a chance to share their experiences, voices, and stories. Diversity on screen requires diversity in writing teams too.

There’s such a goldmine of unique and interesting stories waiting to be discovered and shared.

At the BFI event, I met several disabled writers and performers who had been approached by the BBC to attend an actors’ event earlier this year. But the event hadn’t been designed to mentor them or develop their stories into shows. It had been designed so that able-bodied writers could speed-meet disabled talent and pick their brains for creative gems, before going o and using this new-found knowledge to make their scripts more realistic. When one of the disabled writers asked why the BBC couldn’t just commission them instead, they were told that this was a “better first step”.

My own experiences have been depressingly similar. After spending five years on a sitcom development merry- go-round with the BBC, my project was rejected. One of the problems they had was that my character was “too happy”. My depiction of a wobbly girl did not t with the preconceptions of the commissioners, so that was that (I mean, how could someone brain-damaged be, gulp, happy?!). They then said they still really wanted to work with me and asked if I would allow an established writer (like Ben Elton) to write me a series instead. I declined, saying that much as I like Ben Elton, I felt I was better placed to know what a wobbly girl’s life was like.

It’s a shame that more than 20 years after I appeared on BBC1’S Grange Hill, TV producers are still too nervous / scared / prejudiced to allow writers and performers with disabilities to tell their own stories.

Part of representing the beauty of human diversity in the arts is encouraging a diverse range of writers to open up their life experience. There’s such a goldmine of unique and interesting stories waiting to be discovered and shared.

And that’s the point. Harnessing this wealth of new perspectives isn’t being charitable or worthy or right-on. It’s simply realising that creativity is fuelled by diversity, and that original and authentic stories come from original and authentic voices. By failing to realise this and do what needs to be done, you are missing out and so is your audience.

 Francesca Martinez is a stand-up comedian, actress and author. She has cerebral palsy but prefers to describe herself as “wobbly”.

The BBC responded to this article, saying: “Giving more opportunities to talented disabled people on and off screen is a priority for the BBC and we’ve made real progress, though there’s more for us and the wider broadcasting industry to do. On screen we’ve recently just launched our Class Act training programme for disabled actors, and we’re proud that all 32 participants successfully secured BBC auditions. And off air, the BBC Writersroom and BBC Comedy are both proactively working independently and with partners to nurture and develop disabled writing talent. We want to make a real difference in this area and welcome disabled writers, including performers who also write, to approach us with their work. A Brief History of Tim written by and starring Tim Renkow is a recent example of programming we are keen to do more of.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD.