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Victoria Wright gives a resounding thumbs up to TV's Coronation Street for casting disabled actor Liam Bairstow / 21 September 2015

portrait photo of actor Liam Bairstow

Liam Bairstow plays Cathy’s nephew, Alex in Coronation Street. Credit: ITV

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It is an unwritten rule in soapland that you can have as many gangsters, thugs, serial killers and baby snatchers as you like but only one disabled character at a time, otherwise it might look a tad creepy and unrealistic. 

Actually, I say ‘unwritten’ but it wouldn't surprise me it this was written down on a big yellow post-it note in every soap producer’s office, along with the words ‘Diversity refresh due circa 2018!’ 

This might sound a bit cynical but I don’t think it’s all that far from the truth. Many years ago I was chatting to a senior television executive when I clumsily tried to explain why having more disabled people on television would be A Good Thing. He responded by saying ‘yes, but we're not social workers’. In other words, he viewed disabled people as only being about political correctness and dealing with ISHOOS. I was reminded of this encounter when I read Francesca Martinez’s moving and witty memoir ‘What the **** is Normal?’

She recounts once attending a diversity event at the BBC and being shocked when a producer of EastEnders remarked that whilst they were keen to include more disabled and diverse actors in the show, they didn't want too many or it could turn into a ‘freak show’. Not quite the sort thing you want to say to a room full of disabled people, me thinks… Since then, EastEnders has redeemed itself by casting the brilliant Lisa Hammond as market trader Donna Yates, bringing much needed character and sardonic humour into the show. On a side note, my only problem with Donna is that she hasn't yet had a one-night stand with the talking bulge that is Max Branning.

I thought it was obligatory that every new female character gets the pleasure of a quickie with Albert Square’s answer to Michael Fassbender. But no, not even a snog. This could be outrageous disablism or a lucky escape, depending on your view of Max Branning. She needs a bit more sex does our Donna. Then again, don't we all dear.

But I'm going to put my cynicism slightly aside (for now) and say a big bloody well done to Coronation Street, who have just cast an actor with Down's syndrome. Liam Bairstow, who trained for several years with Mind the Gap, a Bradford-based theatre company for performers with learning disabilities, plays Cathy’s nephew, Alex. 

Liam was cast after taking part in ITV’s Breaking Through workshop for disabled actors. Tellingly, Corrie producer Stuart Blackburn announced that the casting decision was “not some politically correct thing” to which I say ‘calm down Stuart love, and have a brew’. Hopefully one day producers won’t need to feel they have to pre-emptively defend themselves for casting a disabled actor.

Liam Bairstow’s first scene was on Sunday 13 September and what a cracking scene it was as Alex bonded with Roy Cropper over the board game Escalado. Softly spoken, twinkly eyed and full of cheek, he’s a breath of fresh air in a soap that’s become a bit stale lately. I predict great things for Liam Bairstow who has the makings of a great character actor. And as Corrie fans know, it’s the character actors that are the true stars of the show. 

I'd particularly love to see him in a scene with Izzy, played by disabled actress Cherylee Houston, if only to prove that having two disabled characters on screen at the same time won't make the TV explode. 

Oh, I do hope they keep him.

Keywords: access,tv soaps