Both Diane and myself are big Jonathon Creek fans and so we were most happy to see that he was about to make a come back tonight. We both sat back ready to spend an evening looking out for clues with the BBC’s floppy haired magical detective. But it soon became clear that alongside the mystery that we were meant to unravel there was another one that might have been missed by most viewers, but one with a more obvious answer.
You see as soon as Rik Mayall wheeled into view, my heart dropped and the game was afoot. “But what is the mystery you speak of Mik?” I hear you ask. Well it why has the BBC’s casting department seen nothing wrong with getting a non-disabled actor to “crip up” and play disabled, yet again. I began to watch closely, trying to seek out those hard to spot clues that might give me the answer. As the show rolled along I started to wonder if the reason was that at any minute Rik was going to jump up and walk. Oh yes, that must be it! HE was the one who was to blame for the shenanigans that Jonathon was trying to make sense of. That must be why the BBC and the JC production team had made such a faux pas. It was going to be the hidden twist and the wheelchair was all a ruse to throw the viewers off the fact that Rik was playing the villain. The minutes ticked by and I became absolutely sure. It just must be the answer… but no, I was wrong. As the credits began to be squashed to one side by information of what was coming next across the Beeb, I sadly knew that I had just sat through another example of just how out of touch the media still is when it comes to disability.
If we ignore that ridiculous idea that there exists a I-Pad clamp that can be used as a weapon by a man who is meant to be paralysed in such a way that he can only move one finger (I won’t say too much in case you missed it and want to enjoy poor writing at it’s best), at no point during Rik Mayall’s performance did anything happen that made it essential that a non-disabled actor was cast to play the role, either through the portrayal or script. In fact it was only that he was a returning character that apparently had been shot and paralysed while JC was off our screens that could be said to be why it had to be Rik.
But the big mystery that this show needs us to solve is why not introduce a new character who was really disabled, both in the drama and in real life? I know of so many truly talented disabled actors who could have nailed this role, including little old me. Not only would have brought a reality to the role, but it would have shown that the BBC is really committed to the idea of Integrated Casting, which all the industry says it is signed up to.
Integrated casting is where disabled actors may be cast to play characters that are not written as disabled and so their disability will not be mentioned in the piece. Now in a way casting a non-disabled actor to play disabled could be described as integrated casting, but in truth it is not. This form of casting is designed to try to mirror the real world, and to get more disabled talent onto our screens. But it was also meant to be the next step that the media took after ensuring that only disabled actors played disabled roles.
In fact casting mistakes like tonight’s just demonstrates that when it comes to disability the BBC is still in the place it was back in the 60’s and 70’s with the portrayal of Black and other ethnic minorities. I shall just say “The Black and White Minstrel Show“. It is just as offensive to most disabled people to see yet another job that should gone to one of us going to someone not disabled, no matter if they are a “name” of not. How will there ever be a big name disabled actor if we never get the roles? How can we ever get to prove ourselves as actors if we never get the roles? How can we even think of going into the industry if after so long campaigning to make the people who cast TV drama to cast disabled people to play disabled people we still never get the roles?
There is no excuse for tonight’s casting. Whatever those involved say it was just plain wrong. It belittled the show, it belittled the viewers and sadly it made me think considerably less of Rik Mayall. As someone who I have worked with in the past, on the show Wham Bam Strawberry Jam; also for the BBC, I would have hoped that he might see that taking the part was wrong. Even if he wasn’t fully versed in disability politics surely it must feel wrong, or at least weird, to play disabled?
In my heart I would hope that all professional actors would see it was wrong to play disabled but no. It’s still seen as fine and might even win them an award or two. So this is a plea to all my fellow members of Equity, the actors union. Please stop taking these roles. If you stop, then the casting directors will have to cast the talented professional disabled actors out there and you will have played a part in making a real change in our society. You will have helped to create a new type of image of disabled people. One that shows we can work, and work in a professional manner, as well as ensuring that when we do play a role we can work with the writers and directors to create a character that is realistic and true to the experience of all the disabled people viewing.
Come on BBC, and every other production company out there, no more. Make tonight’s Jonathon Creek go down in history as it’s the last time you do this. From now on, if the role written is for a disabled character then only cast a disabled actor.