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Jack Thorne, one of the most prolific and celebrated British writers working in film and TV today with credits including His Dark Materials, The Eddy, The Aeronauts, Enola Holmes and the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play, has given a damning indictment of how the British TV industry has dealt with disability, both in front of and behind the camera.
In giving the keynote MacTaggart Lecture at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival, Thorne said that “TV has failed disabled people, utterly and totally,” adding that the TV world was “stacked against the telling of disabled stories with disabled talent.”
Thorne described the past year as “a year of ableism like I’ve never seen before,” highlighting how the majority of people to die from COVID-19 in the U.K. were disabled, with many denied treatment because their “lives were not seen as vital.”
But given the past year — “when disabled people were so recently forgotten, at a time when disabled people were left to die, at a time when disabled people are still being ignored” — he said that TV had a responsibility.
“And yet, disability is the forgotten diversity, the one everyone leaves out of speeches. Gender, race, sexuality, all rightly get discussed at length. Disability gets relegated out. In conversations about representation, in action plans, and new era planning, disability is confined to the corner, it remains an afterthought,” he said. “Actors – actors I admire – have taken roles they shouldn’t have; I’ve been complicit in some of those decisions. Producers have ignored disabled writers. Commissioners haven’t taken the opportunity to tell disabled stories. There are very few disabled people in front of the camera, and even fewer behind it.”
Thorne said there needed to be an “attitude change” as to the importance of disabled drama, describing how he was once asked to consider rewriting a series treatment about a wheelchair basketball team to make it about a non-disabled basketball team, because it was “full of good ideas” and it needed “the best chance it could.” He said that the fact it was about a disabled team was “dragging it down,” adding that, up until 2021 (he’s currently working on Then Barbara Met Alan with the BBC and Netflix), he had never made a single disabled story on a full drama budget.
Another growing issue that Thorne took a swipe at was the casting of non-disabled people in disabled roles. While he acknowledged there was a number of disabled actors appearing in drama series, he said they were mostly “disabled people fitting in with non-disabled narratives.”
In order to get diversity — both on screen and off — Thorne said there desperately needed to be quotas.
“There is an intention to change, but that intention is not backed up by impositions on the makers to change their ways,” he said, pointing to statistics from the U.K. that show how 20 percent of the population is disabled, but is represented by 8.2 percent of on-screen talent, and just 5.4 percent of people working off-screen. Despite U.K. broadcasters announcing a target to double disability representation in front and behind the camera by 2021, Thorne said that a report from last year showed that this growth has only hit 0.9 percent, and that the target itself was “not enough to make representation truly proportional.”
To truly reflect the makeup of the U.K. and reach the “vaunted 20 percent representation,” Thorne turned to the Black Lives Matter movement for inspiration.
“I know the Black Lives Matter movement has a long way to go, and that no-one is satisfied with our current state of affairs, but I can’t tell you the difference it has made to casting conversations,” he said. “The fact that the same white names and faces aren’t presented in every conversation. Actors, writers and directors of color are finally being elevated, and it means that there is starting to be a complexity to the stories being told on TV.”
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