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2 July 2010

By Colin Hambrook

Matt Simpson and David Walliams pose as Lou and Andy from BBCs Little Britain

Matt Simpson and David Walliams star as Lou and Andy in Little Britain.

Did you watch BBC 2s 'Are you having a laugh? TV and Disability'? It was the BBCs latest attempt to convince viewers that attitudes towards disability have changed massively over the past 50 years. There has been a lot of change. But has change been as enormous and as positive as narrator David Walliams (writer and actor from Little Britain) seemed to be making out?

Where I thought the programme did succeed was in telling the stories of a small group of professional crips. Television actors / presenters Mat Fraser, Kiruna Stamell (Cast Offs), Julie Fernandez (The Office), Cerrie Bernell (CBeebies),  TV producer Ash Atalla (IT Crowd, The Office), athlete Tanni-Grey Thompson, editor Ian McCrae and comedians Francesaca Martinez and Laurence Clark were given a platform to share some of their views on where change has happened.

It was interesting hearing Ash Atalla – for instance - talking about the effect of being sent to a special school. He says: “I remember thinking if it meant the only women I was going to meet was going to be other wheelchair-users.” Back in the 1990s there was a lot of debate especially coming from ex-special school students about wanting to be part of the mainstream – and not be stuck in a disability ghetto.

‘Are you having a laugh?’ seemed to be saying that we are living in a brave new world where the mainstream is still flawed – but is generally more accepting of disabled people. But does the kind of humour about disability we see on our screens in programmes like The Office, Extras and Little Britain really mean society is more accepting of disabled people? Or that it has taken on the issues of discrimination and difference that we face?

The Office co-writer Stephen Merchant talked about wanting the character of Brent to be confronted by a wheelchair-user.  In the second series Julie Fernandez played an office worker who Brett ingratiates himself with, trying hard to use a connection with her to his own advantage. But isn’t this kind of humour still playing on notions of triumph over tragedy? Doesn't the assumption that she is lucky to be working there still underlie the comic element?

Presenter Cerrie Bernell talked about her experience of presenting on a children’s programme and receiving media attention over the fact some parents complained her stump was giving their kids nightmares. 'Are you having a laugh?' failed to address why the media was so keen to make a big deal of this adverse response.

Some of the other non-crip tv presenters, celebrities and comedians seemed self-conscious and didn’t add anything of particular relevance to the programme. I maybe wrong, but kind of felt that the likes of Arthur Smith, Jimmy Tarbuck and Nicholas Parsons, were making a brave effort - but weren’t really quite sure why they’d been asked to talk about disability.  

The documentary moved around a bit aimlessly. It was definitely more about representation than it was about comedy. A handful of stories were thrown in there. It was interesting to hear Ian McCrae, for example, saying that all the letters of complaint he received at Disability Now about Andy – the non-disabled wheelchair-user from Little Britain – were from non-disabled people. However I found this a bit strange having known lots of stories from wheelchair-users who transfer, getting told by strangers that they are ‘faking it.’  

I think there is more, rather than less chance of disabled people becoming isolated and marginalised, in the current climate. The programme largely failed to address notions of 'triumph over tragedy' other than in passing. Aren't the expectations placed on us to be the same as everyone else, higher than ever, now?

Sure there were some comments on discriminatory attitudes, patronisation and awkwardness - even sex - but it didn't convince me that society - as reflected through the medium of television - is actually ready to accept disabled people on any other terms than as ‘normals’ with a difference.

Are you having a laugh? TV and Disability is available on BBCs i-player until Thursday 8 July 2010

Comments

Ann

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18 July 2010

In response to Patrick, we are not winging on behalf of disabled people - WE are disabled people and WE are 'winging' on behalf of ourselves!

Patrick Madigan

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15 July 2010

You can't do right and you can't do wrong..... The media is a very fickle industry, you have to have a very hard exterior to compete in this industry. Disability is a normal way of life and in it's rawness, would not appeal to the mass media and its audience, let alone the sponsors and advertisers. Normal everyday life is boring.... The sun always shines on TV. Don't hate the player, hate the game. Unfortunately disability would never be shown or reflected accurately on screen, just like real life. I wish peole would stop winging on behalf of disabled people. They are merely creating fuss and aggravation for people who do not care; whose lives are hard enough to deal with rather than worrying about what is being broadcasted on the 'goggle box'.....

sarah p

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11 July 2010

I thought this was something of a mixed bag - but too many apparently non-disabled people had their say - I'd like to see something like this with more disabled people having input. would have liked to have another look on the iplayer but subtitles not available !!!!

/
9 July 2010

I agree absolutely. This was a shoddy attempt to make a case for a change in representation of disability on tv - when there isn't one. We still have clusters of freak-show documentaries dressed up as investigations into the lives of disabled people that are pure medical model. At best 'Are you having a laugh' was nothing but tokenism.

Wicked Wench of Wimpole Street

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9 July 2010

You absolutely can make comedy out of disability. The problem is, disabled people are usually not the ones making the jokes. That, for me, is the main problem. Once we have comedians like Francesa and Laurence Clark on shows like QI and mock the Week, then we'll know there's been a major change in how disability is portrayed on TV.

I don't care that a disabled person produced The office and Extras - I still have issues with the humour, although I do love the IT crowd and loved the episode where Chris pretends to be disabled to get out of an awkward situation. That was also produced by Ash Attala.

At least in this documentary, the funniest and most aware comments came from the disabled commentators.

But ultimately, it felt like a programme made by and for non-disabled people. Why else have a non-disabled person, David Walliams, narrate it?

Colin

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9 July 2010

There is a big difference with comedy like The Office and Extras - because the programmes were both produced by a disabled person - Ash Attala.

Wicked Wench points out there isn't a whole lot of difference between The Office and 1970s sitcom Love Thy Neighbour. The scenario is that a buffoon makes disablist / racist joke. The audience laughs at buffoon while disabled / black person takes the brunt.

But can we ignore people like Francesca Martinez saying that for her it would be much worse disablism if television wasn't allowed to make her impairment a subject for comedy - because for her at least there was a sense of liberation from making her walk (which was made a pivotal moment in the whole documentary) a focus for attention.

I think comedy can be a useful tool for self-acceptance. I know that being able to laugh at myself has been essential for my own survival.

I remember Rudolph Walker (in a similar documentary years ago about tv comedy and race) saying that he didn't feel a victim when his character was being subjected to racist language because he was given license to throw similar stuff back at Reg Varney.

Francesca Martinez, Mat Fraser and Julie Fernandez seem to be saying something similar. I don't know if we can just ignore that and go on a righteous hobby-horse saying "you can't make humour about disability?"

Doom Thief

/
9 July 2010

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour but Heaven knows I'm miserable now.

The programme was full of contradictions and justifications to show inexcusable clips or oppressive and generally unfunny comedy, and even worst it took clips and played them out of context to bolster the story they were purporting to tell. I feel for the very people whose images were used without their permission in ways that mis-represented the reality of the time in which they were shot. I know for a fact that at least one of the clips used was edited to such an extent to make it fit the programme line that it missed out the part where the people involved challenged the situation they were in, and were as such probabley more effective in reaching an audience than this programme will have been.

All that being said, a challenge to the negative stats quo is still a challenge, it is just a shame that with such a good piece of air time, they didn't make better use of the world of disability comedy and self representation, rathe than falling back on the 'Grump Old" favourites, who for the majority of their careers haven't missed a beat if jokes about Disabled People bring out the laughs.

I wonder if the Disabled Artists involved were given any directorial or production involvement, as I hope if they had the programme would have been far more engaging rather than enraging. I for one now know even more ways to take the piss out of Disabled People, as if the ways I experience aren't enough. Other than Matt Fraser and Ash, where was the irony, and other the the IT Crowd, where did we any kismet.

And back to where I started, Morrisey sporned a monster, and yet everyone still loves him, yet Ian Dury was banned from the air waves for singing about Spasticus Autisticus,

How different was this programme?

peter street - poet

/
8 July 2010

Dear Everyone again

Is the answer to all of this so simple we are over looking it?

For example: Do we think if we stopped watching, stopped listening to the so called t.v/radio comedians and stopped buying products from the companies who make fun/abuse us; just to help sell their wares; do you think that would that help to go some way in stopping this abuse of our humans rights that very few people seem bothered about?

Should we even stop going to the theatre when able-bodied actors are used in roles that clearly call for a disable person to be used? Also, should we now ask our able bodied friends to join in our fight for our freedom. Yes, freedom: a big word that has somehow missed us.

Is now the time to say enough is enough to the companies, comedians, t.v. and radio stations who have made their money and their fame on the back of us. Is it now the time to do all of these things? Have you had enough - i know i have.

Bob Williams-Findlay

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8 July 2010

Whoever wrote the script was certainly having a laugh. It was like watching a Saturday morning show full of celeb chiefs busily tossing the particular vegetable into the melting pot in order to conjure up a complete dog's dinner.

Some of the facts were false and I ended up too scared to look in case people started to die from being slapped on the back over and over again or from disappearing up each other's bums.

peter street - poet

/
8 July 2010

Dear Everyone

it's all very well having these debates about disability and how we the disabled community - are portrayed on t.v. This is garbage. No matter how it is dressed it up WE ARE BEING USED AND ABUSED. Nothing is being done about it - no one seems to be bothered about it. For what ever reason we don't seem to have the political backing like other minority groups. Our politicians, lets face it, are there for an easy life. The last thing our M.P.'s would want to do is to get embroiled in the human rights of the disabled community - Why should they? When very few in our community seem that bothered. For example: I don't think there was one complaint sent into the B.B.C. When Jonathan Ross proudly showed off the last Olympic team and what they had achieved: they were on his friday night show - But when it was the turn of the Para-olympic team to show off what they had achieved they were no where to be seen - they were given just a patronising round of applause. That was it. So, I have to ask: IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE REALLY BOTHERED - IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE WHO IS READY TO SAY STOP TAKING THE PISS

Gus Garside

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8 July 2010

I didn't see it myself but have spoken to a few people with a learning disabilty who did..the general view was it was OK but once again learning disability was completely overlooked in the media

Wicked Wench of Wimpole Street

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5 July 2010

I thought the programme was a good start and probably a good introduction to 'disability and the media' for non-disabled people and even for disabled people who don't really think too much about these issues.

However, I hated the fact that Ricky Gervais was lauded like a bloody saint for having two disabled actors in his programmes. Doesn't anyone else get the fact that the way The Office and Extras deal with disability is no different from how race was dealt with in those 1970s shows like Love Thy Neighbour? I.e a non-disabled/white guy makes offensive comments about disability/race and everyone laughs because they're saying the things that all other non-disabled/white people think but wouldn't dare say? And of course the disabled/black character is passive and barely has any lines and just has 2 expressions: shocked and appalled. I thought it said a lot when Julie Fernandez said she'd asked Gervais and Merchant if she could say a line when her character is dumped on a stairwell, and they told her it would be better if she was silent.

Their argument is basically: "We're not making fun of disabled people. We're making fun of those that make fun of disabled people, 'cos we're post modern innit." Which to me, translates into: "The audience doesn't directly laugh AT the disabled character. The audience laughs WITH the non-disabled character snd THROUGH HIM, they laugh AT the disabled character. It's completely different yeah, cos we're being post modern innit!".

Joseph McConnell

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4 July 2010

Great article Colin. But isn't there a wider picture here? From reality TV to the ghastly spectrum of soaps, doesn't contemporary television depict humanity in general in a nasty prurient way? Programmes like Big Brother have - with considerable success - changed us into a nation of gawping voyeurs. If we don't like that, we can always watch a vast array of 'property makeover' programmes that encourage us to buy property in other countries regardless of the disastrous effect this can have on local economies. Even the more serious documentaries are dumbed down placing sensationalism over intellectual integrity. It is an unlovely world. The representation of disabled people has probably improved because we are more visible, but probably deteriorated because of the vile inanity of most of today's television.

Sadieei

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3 July 2010

I totally agree with Colin and do not understand why this was ever commissioned.

In terms of the programme,, its content, aims and presentation. I fail to see what the point was, everyone was white with visible impairments (often 'exposed' to the camera to prove they qualify), narrow parameters in terms of where they were looking and more what they were looking for.

The very idea that Eastenders is in some way responsible for good representation or even quality TV is shocking and insulting to me. There is more to disability than turning up and shuting up. and in this day and age we should be well past this stage and it being seen as some sort of accomplishment.

Channel 4, BBC, The Actors centre, RSC, to name a few have in the past 15 years all undertaken work that has moved the conversation on much more than any of the 'pap' that this feeble programme waffled on about. And some of those shows won awards, BAFTAs, RTAs etc, in comedy and drama arenas.

As for the people taking part, Katie, mat is a friend to everyone and i am sure that he would not want to be patronised by being told that he was great when he was not, on this occassion for me mat was just Mat nothing else to say really no reason to single him out. Bendygirl, well we all have different experiences as disabled people and balance is vital, this programme did not have it in any way shape or form. Knowing the rest of them, i doubt they were even aware that they were being filmed or why!!

It was a bag of rubbish packaged in such a way as to be in offensive, and it would appear that its worked, after all its not people like me that have to be impressed, its those in the ivory towers looking out and thinking 'whats the next flavor of the month that we can make money out of'

It was a waste a time when the conversation could have been great instead it was wishy washy nonsense.

And the best line of all came from Mr Tarbuck when he stated very honestly that the only thing Ms Mills could offer advice on or be a role model in - was how to marry a rich man.

Finally someone on there who did not take himself too seriously.

Michele Taylor

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3 July 2010

I cannot begin to express how angry & upset I felt watching this programme. It did not represent my experiences of discrimination at all & it allowed to go utterly unchallenged the notion that all non-disabled people have parked illegitimately in blue badge bays - but at least they have the 'decency' to limp as they walk away. This was horrifying stuff & it's only value was in exposing just how far we haven't come.

Michele Taylor

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3 July 2010

I cannot begin to express how angry & upset I felt watching this programme. It did not represent my experiences of discrimination at all & it allowed to go utterly unchallenged the notion that all non-disabled people have parked illegitimately in blue badge bays - but at least they have the 'decency' to limp as they walk away. This was horrifying stuff & it's only value was in exposing just how far we haven't come.

BendyGirl

/
3 July 2010

I also disagree, I thought the programme managed the balance between education & entertainment really well. It was aimed at a primarily non disabled audience and introduced the idea of disability based prejudice in a light hearted way perfectly suited to it's Friday night slot on BBC2

Having said that, the points Colin makes are all valid & I do agree with them...but we have to start somewhere and I thought this documentary achieved that.

http://benefitscroungingscum.blogspot.com/

Katie Fraser

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3 July 2010

I disagree , I thought the programme really showed a sense of disability and didnt show "triumph over tragedy".

The actors and disabled people who spoke like Mat Fraser and Cerrie Burnell were all brilliant at telling their stories, just not sure why people like Jenny Eclair and Nicholas Parsons were in it?

WEll done to all involved and as a friend of Mat , I thought his jokes in it were hilarious!

pink pjs

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3 July 2010

I would agree with Colin. On the one hand, it was great to see this issue receiving some primetime attention, and the beeb kind of holding its hands up and admitting it hasn't done disability very well, but on the other, it focussed on physical and sensory impairments and ignored others and really, you can't do disability in an hour.

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