Last night I sat up in bed trying to write something about the BBC3 program “My Brother and Me”, but I found however hard I tried a mixture of anger, sadness and incredulity meant all that I could manage was an incoherent list of why this program was everything that goes wrong when TV decides it has to “do disability”. Now in the cold light day, after a good nights sleep and with the anger in check (hopefully) will give it a second go.
I would normally put a link to the show, and advise you Dear Reader to go and take a look, but I have mixed feelings about doing so in this case. While I want to make sure that if anyone hasn’t seen the show that they do understand why this show was so bad, but I would also hate to be the one that made anyone else have to hurt their soul and waste any precious life watching this example of very bad TV. I am also worried that the producers of the show and the BBC itself may take the number of hits the show gets on I-Player as a sign of what a success it was. Yet I suppose no one wants to be the kind of person who complains about something they haven’t seen, so I apologise in advance. Maybe read the blog and then decide whether to burn the scar of this show into your memory.
Why did this show offend me so much? Three main reasons.
Firstly, the focus. Instead of the disabled person being the key character in the program and driving the story, the focus was around the young TV presenter Jeff Brazier – yes I have never heard of him either – and his “Project” to get his disabled brother to be more independent. Now I understand that Jeff’s brother Spencer’s Cerebral Palsy means that speech is very difficult for the teenager, and this will have caused the show’s producers a headache around how to shoot the program, and that BBC3 is a youth channel and celebrity sells with today’s youth but the main focus when exploring disability in a show should always be the disabled person. This program gave too much weight to the thoughts and cares of the able bodied protagonists and didn’t really explore what it is like to be a disabled teenager who wants to break away from his over protective Mother. Or what having your perfect brother suddenly decide that they were going to make you a project and spend three weeks of his life nagging you to do things the way he thought was right. Yes that is that is what this show is about! Nice huh?
The second problem is portrayal. This show gets it wrong from the offset, by making it a program about someone able bodied trying to make a disabled person’s life better with the mantra of “it’s for your own good” running through every second. It could have redeemed itself if it had shown disability in a positive light and empowered young Spencer. While there were a few great moments, mainly when Spencer got so fed up with being told what to do that he got angry, nice one mate, most of the show either had an air of “poor little thing” or was all “stare and be amazed at the disabled freak while you gaze longingly at the wonderfulness of the able bodied TV star”. All the able bodied people in the show were apparently successful, whether it be as a C-List celebrity or as a Mother, and only the disabled person was the one needing fixing. Ignoring the fact that if this disabled teenager was too dependent of his mother, it could only have been her that made him that way completely, and that his AB brother was an arse of the greatest order!
The third flaw was… just about everything else! What got me most upset was what a terrible waste it was. One of the worst times in any disabled child’s life is that period when you want to get more independence. I remember how hard I fought to break away from my Mum, and showing this in a realistic and thoughtful way on TV would not only have helped the wider world have a deeper understanding of what it is like to be a disabled teenager and thus a disabled adult, but also given hope to anyone going through that awful period themselves. It would have educated and entertained without being patronising or damaging. But no, instead we got a vehicle for a celebrity to show what a great guy he was. The disabled person became almost a plot device. Luckily Spencer fought through and was the only redeeming thing in the show. Even with speech proving difficult, he came across as knowing what he wants for his life, and understanding the truth of how he will achieve these goals.
I feel that the show’s producers really missed an opportunity. The part where Jeff is trying to get Spencer to use a speech synth machine really demonstrates where the show goes wrong. Spencer is not keen on using one, as he feels it makes him more disabled, but he is nagged into trying one by his do gooding brother. He gives it go, and you can see that while he enjoys being able to communicate easily, he is still very unsure about how such an aid makes him feel about himself. Do we explore this? No. Do we even mention what the issues are around getting such help and problems like funding? No. We don’t even get an real interview with Spencer using the voice synth that allows him to explore how he feels in depth. Instead what we get is Jeff nagging his brother to do a sponsored walk to buy the piece of machinery. No question of why he it isn’t provided it by the NHS, or what ways he could get it in an empowering way. When Spencer says he wants to just buy the thing, he is told off as this will mean he has no savings left. “No, charity it is for you young crippled boy!” This kind of thing really shows how everyone around young Spencer has absolutely no understanding of what it is like to be disabled. If I didn’t know better I would have said all the able bodied people it this show had never met anyone disabled, let alone brought up a disabled son or grew up with a disabled brother!
But the worst offenders were the BBC3 production team. Back when the DPU existed, the whole team wrote a set of guidelines to help TV producers cover disability in the right way. The plan was to make it impossible to create programs that got it wrong in the future. Sadly the BBC no longer use this fantastic document, and so we get stuff like Me & My Brother. BBC3 are the worst offenders. They just don’t get it. I was involved in a show for BBC3 a few years back, but it ended with a huge argument after the media studies graduate producer (don’t get me started on how media studies and how it is taught is one of the main culprits for the way disability is now portrayed on TV – maybe that should be a blog for a later date?) told me he knew how to do disability. Luckily I did stop myself from attacking him, and went instead for bursting into tears – yes that was how angry I was with the guy! The show did go ahead with one of the new generation of disabled talent fronting it, and was another BBC3 disaster. It just shows that no one at this youth channel gets disability. They want to shock and think outside the box in an attempt to appeal to the youth, but with no real understanding of the issues around disability or knowledge of how to film it they end up repeating, and even building on, their mistakes.
I just hope that someone at the BBC decides that enough is enough. Please, let’s hope that this is the last time we get such a damaging show made as part of the BBC’s commitment to community programming. Someone high up at the corporation must ensure that the BBC sticks to the standards that have made it famous the world over and needs to make sure that disabled people are portrayed with the same level of dignity, respect and understanding that other minorities expect now. I really feel that not being on our screens at all is preferable to shows like this being made.
Anyway, after reading all that if you are brave enough to take a look, here’s the link.