From sexual liberation to the power-play of carers and benefit scams, BBC Four’s CripTales presents a series of unexpected monologues written, performed and directed by disabled people. Actor, and curator of the series Mat Fraser, explains.
Growing up as a young disabled boy in a mainstream, non-disabled school, the whole world seemed able-bodied to me. I didn’t know any disabled people, let alone kids my age.
At that time, television seemed to reinforce the notion that we pretty much didn’t exist, or, when we did, it was generally pitiful. The only disabled character I saw on TV in the 1970s was Sandy in the soap Crossroads. He was paraplegic, and used a wheelchair.
Even now, jobs in TV drama have continued to be few and far between, so it means there are thousands of untold stories, experiences and performances.
So, I welcomed the opportunity to curate CripTales – six, 15-minute monologues – about the disabled experience over the last 50 years, exploring disabled women’s, people of colour and LGBT+ voices, not to mention faces.
But why call it CripTales?
Crip is a reclaimed word of self-empowerment and disability pride. It’s free of pity, charity or tragedy, and was taken up by the disability rights movement in the 1980s.
It was the title that I and the other participants wanted.
The entire series has been written, directed and acted by disabled people, as part of the BBC’s Queers and Snatches series.
Jack Thorne is probably the most famous disabled screenwriter. He started his career on Shameless and Skins, and adapted Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials last year.
For CripTales, he wrote Hamish.
Set in 1981, Hamish’s parents have bought him a new wheelchair. Crucially, it is a self-operated vehicle and a chance for independence, as he’s always been pushed everywhere by carers before. Hamish heads for the woods, in search of carnal pleasure…
For my own monologue – Audition – which I wrote and performed, I wanted to expose and poke fun at the audition process and the many weird, wonderful and often awful auditions I’ve had over the last 20 years.
One such example is an audition I did in the late 90s for a popular TV drama, when many in the industry weren’t very good at hiding their prejudice.
The audition went well. The casting guy said I had a very suitable voice and persona.
Two weeks later I hadn’t heard anything, so my agent called him.
“Oh, there’s a problem,” he said. “The character needs to drive.”
My agent pointed out that I had a full driving licence.
“Sorry, it’s not going to work out with Mat this time,” he said.
I drew on my bewilderment and embarrassment for the monologue, which speaks directly to the industry.
I have had success in other auditions, as you may know if you’ve watched American Horror Story: Freak Show or His Dark Materials.
Deaf director Jenny Sealey handles Matilda Ibini’s story about the power dynamic of carers and their disabled “clients”, from a gay black disabled woman’s perspective in The Shed, performed by Carly Houston.
It’s about a writer who falls in love with Keira, her next-door neighbour. But Ellie, her carer, does not approve of the relationship, and starts to subtly block and subvert the romance, with dangerous consequences.
It’s a chilling tale exploring the power that can be exerted over a wheelchair-user’s life.
This is a perfect example of the stories that TV audiences have previously not had access to, which can only enrich our understanding of humanity in society. Much like deaf writer Genevieve Barr’s unflinching story, Thunderbox.
Set against the new law allowing abortion in the UK in 1968, it asks who is in charge of a disabled woman’s body and who gets to decide about childbirth, when religion, family and society’s beliefs often influence those decisions.
While it was a moment of liberation for some, for wheelchair-user Sue, brilliantly acted by Bafta-nominated actor Ruth Madeley, it throws up questions about bodies and belief. A whirlwind romance has left her pregnant – what should she do now?
And then there is The Real Deal, performed by Liz Carr (Clarissa from Silent Witness) about the UK benefits system and how some disabled people don’t get what’s theirs while others, who may be fakers, get the full bundle.
It’s really cheeky, yet a vital comment on the currently often dire situation so many British disabled people are in, as services are cut.
I’m sure the BBC and other broadcasters will see the talent, recognise the lived experiences, and start commissioning and casting more work from our fine CripTales bunch, or it runs the risk of being a tokenistic project.
CripTales is just the tip of the disability iceberg, but the lumbering Titanic of incorrect portrayals and impairment-obsessed caricatures has sunk into history, finally.
The future is authentic, diverse and includes disabled people in all their myriad guises.
CripTales can be watched at 10pm on BBC Four on 4 and 5 November and watched on BBC iPlayer afterwards.
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