Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin.
I was born in 1965 in Luton, Bedfordshire, the first child of Michael and Joyce McGrath. Within six weeks of this joyous event I had been rushed to hospital and my parents had been told I was dying. The surgical team had found a huge malignant tumour, called an Adrenal Neuroblastoma. Luckily the head surgeon, the brilliant Mr L.G. Capra, had read about new experimental drug and he applied to get it in flown in from the USA. So to cut a long story short, I became part of the trial group for this new wonder drug, Vincristin Sulphate, and, along with surgery and a course of radio therapy, I survived and I am still here over 40 years later.
While this amazingly ground breaking treatment let me live, it also left me with a paralysed right leg. Even though I was disabled, my parents were adamant that I would have a “normal” life, and brought me up to be confident and proud. When I was about to start my education they fought to get me into a mainstream school. My Mum still tells the story of my first day at Stopsley Infants School, when the kids all started laughing at my limp and metal leg (I wore a calliper on my right leg at that time), but instead to giving in to the bullies I backed against a wall and kicked out at them with the metal clad leg that was the cause of their mirth. She loves this story as it demonstrates my method of dealing with life’s little barriers, and I still react that way even today.
My school career went on as normal, up until at the age of 15 when my health went south again. On the morning of my German O Level exam I woke to find I was in a great deal of pain and having difficultly standing, but as she wasn’t exactly sure if I was just trying to get out of going to my exam my Mum packed me of to school in a cab. When I arrived at my high school, Putteridge High, as I got out of the taxi I collapsed. An ambulance was called and off I went to hospital. Typically my school sent a teacher to sit at my bedside while I took my exam, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong with me and there were worries I might be dying (I passed the exam by the way). This was the start of nearly nine months spent in hospital where I underwent two major operations on my spine. It transpired that the treatment for my cancer as a child had the side effect of deforming one of the vertebrae in my spine and on the day of the exam it had collapsed, crushing the nerves to my legs.
I left RNOH in Stanmore just before my 16th birthday, a full-time wheelchair user. I won’t deny this was difficult time, especially as I was still getting over my spinal injury, learning to use a wheelchair and had gone back to school part time to take my exams, in the year below mine. I got through by teaching myself to play keyboards and program music computers (come on, it was the 80’s). By the time I was well enough to go to Luton 6th Form College, I was writing my own songs, playing in a band and had discovered the New Romantic scene. With my mate Richard Hedges as singer, Matthew’s Brother started gigging in the local area. The band was named after Alistair McGuiness, a school friend, after he bet me I wouldn’t name my band after him. Luckily he had a brother called Matthew, so the name was born. Of course we spilt up and I took over vocals. I formed The Strontium Boys with two other mates from school, Alex Robinson and Tony Conroy. We toured and got well known, but had to change our name after a DJ called us The Scrotum Boys on air. Oh dear. So Freak UK came into being. Alex left and my brother Steve joined on guitar. We were soon playing all over the UK and supported my teenage hero Gary Numan on a European tour.
During this time I was spotted at a gig by a TV producer who offered me a chance to do a screen test after I talked my way through repairing a music computer live on stage. I was soon presenting for Thames Television on their weekly live show, “Help Roadshow” and from there my TV career really took off. I presented items for Channel 4’s youth shows “Survivors Guide” and “Sex Talk”, and so became the first disabled presenter to work on mainstream national TV in the UK. Alongside gigging with Freak UK, I toured the UK presenting for local TV stations items on disabled access, especially to pubs and clubs. Such fun to be had being paid to go out! I also started working with BBC2’s disability magazine “One in Four”, who also shot some amazing pop videos for Freak UK.
Then my big break came. In 1990 Channel Four and a production company called Tiny Epic offered me the chance to present on the channel’s first ever kids TV show, “Beat That”. As soon as it went to air it became a huge hit, getting over 2 million viewers a week. This shot me into the spotlight and I was all over the press. The News of the World ran a story with the headline “Wheelie Sexy” about this good looking new disabled star, to coincide with my acting début in C4’s “Brookside”. This made me the first disabled actor to appear in a UK soap I thought I should point out, modestly. I went on to act in ITV’s The Bill and the BBC comedy 2.4 Children (as well as playing Prince Charming in panto!). Not only was the TV career going well, but the music was too. We were really starting to create a buzz on the London music scene and everyone thought we would be the next big thing. The only issue was that almost every label freely said that my being a wheelchair user was a problem. They were insistent that no one would buy anything by a band with a disabled front man. So after giving it our all, Freak UK spilt and I moved down to London.
While the music took a bit of a back seat, the TV went from strength to strength. The second series of “Beat That” went international, being shown all over the world. It also won an Emmy and was nominated for a BAFTA, and I won TV presenter of the Year 1992 and was UNICEF gave me an award for my work with disabled children. Nice one. The BBC then offered me a job on a new kids poetry show, “Wham, Bam Strawberry Jam” alongside Rik Mayall. Me working with Vivian! At the same time I started working with a dance music act which became Eroticis. Combining my pop writing skills with dance production this band just clicked and we were soon playing sell out venues of 3000 plus and massive festivals. Now the image was a little risqué, and our stage shows were a bit raunchy but we only mirrored what was happening on the dance scene at that time. However the press didn’t see it that way. So in 1996 the Daily Mail ran a story about how awful it was that the BBC had hired a Punk who sung in a weird pop band to present one of their kids TV shows. This was major case of never letting the story get in the way of the truth, which was I had been working as a presenter for nearly ten years at this point (many of those years with the BBC) and had already worked in kids TV for six… and had won awards for it too.
Annoyingly I had always asked if the stations that employed me were OK with my music career, which they were, but I was unsure as the music scene isn’t necessarily kid friendly at times. Whatever, I felt it was time to move on, just after I had been offered a job working on “Blue Peter” (can you imagine the hoo-ha if I had taken that job?). I moved into more factual presenting, focusing on my work with the BBC’s Disability Programs Unit and their news show “From The Edge”, as well as other news and current affairs output. Typically Eroticis spilt shortly after. That’ll teach me. But the best thing to come out this time was falling in love with my Diane, who is now my wife. She was the lead singer of Eroticis under the stage name of Angel Delight, and this meant we spent a lot of time together. If I’m honest I had fancied her for ages, ever since I met her when I was 23 at the Electric Ballroom, and this was my ulterior motive for getting her in the band. We got together shortly before the press went crazy and have been together ever since.
Things went fine for the next few years, with the TV, radio and other media darling type stuff as well as my venturing out in writing as a columnist and journalist, and with my music. I had formed a rock band with a friend who went under the stage name of Car Bomb. The band was modestly named Scarlet Messiah, playing a cross between Nu-Metal and Goth. We even managed to get track in the US Goth charts. All this and happy at home too. Then one day in 1999, while coming home from a great meeting with a TV production company, I was involved in a major car crash. While things seemed OK at first, I soon found I had really hurt my shoulder. But I kept on going and one day at work, my first as the outside broadcast presenter for Danny Baker’s Breakfast Show on BBC LDN, I jumped off a curb while carrying a heavy recording device and heard a snap. I was suddenly in agony and kept fainting. I still did my bit, presenting live to the capital, but rushed home afterwards to go straight to bed.
Over the next couple of years my health deteriorated and I found working harder and harder to do. I had started to take heavy pain killers to cope with the increasing agony, and this led to some people thinking I had developed a drug habit. Well I was the rock and roll cripple, so I kind of understood why. While I did keep working now and then, including presenting for a BBC technology pilot and on BBC News 24, I found I just wasn’t well enough to do it full time. As for the music, that was right out. I kept seeing various doctors who couldn’t find anything wrong. Then I finally went to see a surgeon at the RNOH. He spotted that my spine had cracked and was slowly collapsing. Yes that snap was my back breaking, for the second time! Things moved quickly now, and I was soon booked for a major spinal operation. Yet again it was a new op, that involved replacing segments of my spine with titanium. It looked like I was going to live out a childhood fantasy and become a bionic man. After 15 hour surgery I came out with no pain and with a new metal spine (worth over £250,000 as scrap), and set off on the long road to recovery.
During this time my wonderful Diane cared for me and looked after my every need while I wrote for news papers, magazines and websites from my sick bed. It took me ages to get over this period, but in 2005 I was well enough to marry Diane. The best day of my life! I had kind of faced up to the fact that my career in the media was over, and so I studied to become an access and inclusivity expert, working the field of disability. Ever since I was a kid I had campaigned for better access, and my first triumph as an adult was getting my local cinema to allow wheelchair users in, so this seemed a sensible way to go. I took courses and soon started working with several businesses, including the owners of the Stables Market in Camden, where I now lived with my new wife. But as this new career took off, my old one came calling. Ian Macrae, who was my boss at the BBC’s DPU, called me and asked me to start writing a fashion and lifestyle column for the magazine he was editing, Disability Now. I was soon travelling the country interviewing people for the column and this gave me the taste for the media again.
Then in 2011 I went to see a play Graeae Theatre productions and so blown away I got in touch to see if they would be interested in working with me. Luckily, I was soon offered a part in their production “Rhinestone Rollers – Wheels on Broadway”, which was a dance show with wheelchair users performing Broadway numbers. I am sure they only asked me to join to get me to cross dress, as this was the original idea for my costume, but after catching sight of me in a wig the director, Jenny Sealey, changed her mind and I ended up wearing a suit. Phew, as it really was that bad. It was a great show to be part of, which led to something truly amazing.
In 2012 Jenny was awarded the job of directing the Paralympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and she asked me to play a part. During the summer of 2012 I rehearsed and rehearsed under the eye of choreographers Mark Smith and Laura Jones, and then suddenly the big day was here. In front of 80,000 people I danced my wheels off alongside my fellow Rollers. But that wasn’t it for me. With no time to recover from the biggest show of my career I went to the Basketball Arena in the Olympic park and presented the In-Game coverage of the wheelchair basketball for five days in front of capacity crowds.
As 2012 drew to a close, my career took off again. I started writing for a new disability magazine, PosAbility, began working with BBC 3 Counties radio presenting their breakfast show in early 2013, and traveled the country comparing and performing at events such as Dadafest. I became a regular on Channel’s The Wright Stuff, reviewed newspapers for Sky News, did phone-ins around disability for ITV’s This Morning and began writing as a regular columnist for The Huffington
Post, and several print magazines, including PosAbility and Unite. I reported for Channel 5 News, fronted items on TV and radio and wrote articles for global publication, both online and in print. I joined the presenting team for an online travel site, called Britain Is Great, and filmed travelogues all over the UK. I went back to the stage, acting in a production in Stockton with a company called Little Cog and took part in a play-writing course with my mates at Graeae Theatre. I even ventured into the world of stand up comedy, performing for the BBC and at live gigs. I was well received (yes, people laughed) but I found it a lonely existence, all that traveling from gig to gig. Like being a band just without any band mates, so I thought I’d leave it to those who have a passion for it. Alongside this, my career in consultancy also took off. I became an acknowledged expert in inclusive practice and procedure in the private and public sectors, specializing in retail, the arts, housing and public transport. Most recently I spent 6 months working for Network Rail as an access and inclusion manager, and joined the BBC Radio 4 arts show Front Row as a reviewer.
That brings us up to date. The Covid Crisis has reminded me that life is precious and that it is vital to seize the day. This thinking is leading me to rediscover my love for music and the arts, as well as going back to pursuing my media career. Who would have thought that all those years ago, when the doctors told my Mum and Dad I had cancer that one day I would be happily married, with an amazing happy fun filled life and a legacy of a more inclusive and society? Well obviously not me, as I was too young, but no one else I bet you.
Let’s see what tomorrow brings eh?