Disability on screen: Then Barbara Met Alan


This month (March 2022), a disabled cast and crew will take audiences behind the scenes of the disability rights movement that led to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995.

Nearly three decades since the Disability Discrimination Act was written into law, a new drama will retell the love story that launched the movement for disabled civil rights in the UK. Then Barbara Met Alan will depict the true story of Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth, two disabled cabaret performers who met in 1989 and went on to become the driving force behind the Direct Action Network (DAN which pushed the campaign for disabled civil rights into the spotlight. 

Made by the BBC and Dragonfly Film and TV Ltd, and written by acclaimed Bafta winner Jack Thorne and actor-turned-writer Genevieve Barr, the BBC series was created by a cast and crew with lived experience of disability with Ruth Madeley and newcomer Arthur Hughes taking the lead as Barbara and Alan. 

“Barbara and Alan inherited the flame,” states Jack. “What made them different than those that went before – and those that came after – is rather than just hold, they blew petrol on it and used it as a flamethrower. I don’t think anyone comes close to their punk spirit.”

Honour

When Jack first approached Ruth to take the lead, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up, she recalls: “When he told me the whole idea and who I would be playing it just felt so exciting. 

“It had all of the makings of a dream job and what an honour as an actor to play such a powerful character in such an important story.”

For Genevieve it was also an easy yes to come on board to co-write her first feature-length drama. 

“When you’re working with real people’s lives and the things they’ve sweat and bled for, there’s a tremendous feeling of care to find the truth and soul of what they were trying to achieve,” reveals Genevieve.

Ensuring Barbara and Alan’s story was told with care and respect was a priority for everyone involved in the series, made easier by the activists being involved in its creation. 

“I just wanted to make sure that I could do Barbara justice both as a character and as a person,” expresses Ruth. “When I met her, she was incredibly generous and said that I could ask anything I wanted, it really gave us the tools to be able to tell the story right.”

Change

Using personal testimony and archive footage for reference, Barbara and Alan’s story came to life again, exploring their love, politics, their lived experience of disability and how they are intertwined.

“Tonally, it felt right to be punk in spirit and that meant a lot of play with structure and shape which was as fun as watching all the footage of protests and buses,” reveals Genevieve. “What we wanted to do was focus on Barbara and Alan, their love story and the snowballing growth of their movement. But broadly speaking, there’s a real sense that a baton has been passed from disabled activist to activist and continues to do so today.”

This feeling led to Jack and Genevieve setting up their own pressure group while they wrote the show: Underlying Health Condition. The group focusses on improving accessibility within the TV industry. 

“Then Barbara Met Alan was a production that tried to recruit as many disabled cast and crew as possible,” enthuses Genevieve. “It was extraordinary to be part of and it felt like a moment where we went ‘we can do more and we should do more’.”

Credit: BBC Pictures

It is hoped that the show will highlight the progress that still needs to happen to ensure equal opportunities for people living with a disability. 

“This whole story is such a huge part of disability history, of British history and of legislation but when people see this it might be the first time they’re even hearing about it which is heart breaking,” admits Ruth. “People should know that it wasn’t just a bunch of politicians who sat down and said we need to make legislation for disabled people – it came from the streets, it came from disabled people demanding it and a lot of what they were fighting for we’re still fighting for now.

“In conversations about diversity, disability is still 20 years behind other forms of diversity and we are in such privileged position to be able to share important stories like this to mainstream audiences and raise awareness and create change while we do.” 

Reaction

As the show gets closer to airing, Ruth is still in awe of the opportunity to be part of it. 

“I got to work with these incredible actors who could lead anything,” exclaims Ruth. “From a personal perspective, working on this show with complete powerhouses like Mat Fraser and Liz Carr will stay with me forever. I always feel very nervous for something to come out but that is completely secondary to real excitement.

“I’m so proud and this is genuinely the highlight of my career. I just feel very, very lucky to have been asked to lead such an important story and I cannot wait for the world to see it.”

Ruth’s feelings are echoed by Jack and Genevieve who, while excited, are eager to see the public’s reaction to this story.

“I’m really scared. Excited but scared. It’s just been a very special thing to be a part of. I hope people enjoy it,” offers Genevieve. 

“It’s a highlight of my career too. But I agree with Gen, I’m scared what people will say and hope they get it was a show made with love,” adds Jack. “Television has enormous power just by being in people’s living rooms, properly harnessed it could be revolutionary for changing how disabled people are treated.”

Watch Then Barbara Met Alan on BBC Two on 21 March 2022 and then on BBC iPlayer.

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