Acclaimed screenwriter Jack Thorne has slammed the industry for its treatment of disabled people both on and off screen, saying, “TV has failed disabled people. Utterly and totally.”
Thorne used his invitation to give the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival to announce the creation of a new pressure group named Underlying Health Condition, which will push to make TV’s working environments more easily accessible to all and create a cross-industry fund to pay for it.
During his speech, prolific scribe Thorne, known for series such as His Dark Materials and This Is England, and movies such as Wonder and Enola Holmes, revealed a disturbing story about a disabled friend working on a project based in an old factory, “who had to crawl up the steps and along the floor to get to her desk, while her electric wheelchair was outside getting soaked by the rain.”
The revelation came towards the end of a passionate speech in which BAFTA-winner Thorne revealed that, although he had always pledged to further disabled people’s cause in his own writing, he felt he had failed “because the TV world is stacked against the telling of disabled stories with disabled talent. And that has to change”.
He criticized himself for not doing more, citing an incident when a disabled actor friend’s role was reduced in front of him: “I should have shown what this actor needed – solidarity. I did pathetically little. Another actor was cast and my friend’s part trimmed to almost nothing. They later wrote to me ‘in making those choices, you… relegated the only meaningful disabled actor to the background’. And I tell you, the shame of that….”
Thorne called disability “the forgotten diversity, the one everyone leaves out of speeches” and reminded TV makers of their responsibilities to this sector of society, particularly after the Covid pandemic when, he said, “disabled people were left to die”.
The writer revealed he had previously considered himself a disabled person – having been diagnosed as a young man with cholinergic urticaria, a chronic rash, that for several years made it difficult for him to move and forced him to quit university.
He made the point that his disability was invisible, and “as a white man with all the privilege that entails”, he had not suffered from prejudice – “I have had opportunities that my disabled family have not.”
He quoted the Creative Diversity Network’s calculation that, with current targets set by broadcasters, it will take until 2041 for disability in off-screen roles to reflect the make-up of the UK, and stressed the need for quotas to be introduced and enforced both behind and in front of the camera, all the way from drama schools through to production.
He demanded that producers stop worrying about characters and casts being “too disabled” and realize instead that such stories had a clear resonance with the audience. He cited the narrative arc of one of Silent Witness’s most popular characters Clarissa, whose story gradually expanded and evolved during actress Liz Carr’s eight years on the show. In many other shows, he said, disabled actors we see on screen from soaps to drama are merely “fitting in with non-disabled narratives.”
During a very personal lecture, Thorne emphasised his lifelong love for TV, and cited first watching Boys From The Blackstuff as the most important cultural event of his life.
With Channel 4 about to air arguably his most politically-charged drama, Help, which is set in an elderly care home in the early months of the Covid pandemic, Thorne was also unstinting with statistics charting the lack of care afforded to this vulnerable sector of the population, both residents and carers.
He said: “Through my job I’ve spoken to sexual abuse survivors, to people struggling through adoption, people who have lost huge things and there isn’t, of course, a trauma league, but the rawness I encountered speaking to carers was like nothing else.”
Last year’s MacTaggart lecture was given by historian David Olusoga, who laid bare British TV’s racism problem in a blistering speech. Previous speakers include Armando Iannucci, Rupert Murdoch, and Michaela Coel.
Thorne’s upcoming projects include Channel 4’s Help, starring Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer, and the BBC’s factual drama Independence Day? How Disabled Rights Were Won (working title), which he has co-written with Genevieve Barr.