Comedian Adam Hills is set to shine a light on disability sport in his upcoming Channel 4 documentary, Adam Hills: Take His Legs (Friday 13 December, 11:30pm). Adam speaks exclusively to Lorne Gillies about his journey to live out his boyhood dream of playing in competitive rugby league and the importance of sport.
“I’ve been passionate about rugby league since I was a kid,” emphasises comedian and presenter of Channel 4’s The Last Leg, Adam Hills. “When I stopped playing rugby at 14, I never thought I would be able to go out and have another chance. Then, this thing just popped into my lap.”
The ‘thing’ Adam is referring to is the Physical Disability Rugby League, or PDRL. After coming across a tweet detailing the work of the PDRL, Adam decided it was time the UK had it’s own PDRL.
As a lifelong die-hard rugby fan, the passion Adam has for rugby is evident throughout Adam Hills: Take His Legs. The 60-minute documentary follows the Warrington Wolves as they aim to win the club world championships of the PDRL – against Adam’s childhood team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
“My original thought was that I would publicise it and tell everyone about it, but, in the back of my mind I was hoping I would get to have a bit of a play, too,” Adam laughs remembering the initial process of getting involved in the league. “It then ended up becoming this life altering experience.”
After establishing the PDRL, it wasn’t long before other teams started establishing themselves across the north west of England – including Leeds, featuring Adam’s The Last Leg co-star, Alex Brooker.
Joining the Warrington Wolves – part of the Warrington Wolves Charitable Foundation, which was created to provide life-changing opportunities through sport, education, health and the arts – Adam’s journey begins.
Immersed with laughter and joy, the poignant factor of Take His Legs is the self-assurance that every player involved in PDRL gains.
Adam continues: “The weird thing is: we don’t often talk about each other’s disabilities because we’re there to play rugby league.”
Members of the Warrington Wolves are amputees – like Adam – live with cerebral palsy, acquired brain injury, Down’s syndrome and a wide range of disabilities. However, on the pitch their disabilities are not the main focus.
“It is, in a way, the one point in our lives where we don’t have to discuss our disabilities. I tend not to know what everyone’s disability is,” Adam laughs.
The confidence and pride that players obtain through playing PDRL is tangible.
“That’s been the biggest thing for me, seeing some of the guys turn up who were quite self-conscious, hiding their disability, even finding it hard to engage in conversation – seeing them come out of their shells and blossom as people to become more confident,” enthuses Adam.
“It was one of the unexpected consequences of the process: watching everyone’s self-confidence grow and watching the mental health benefits.”
Mental health is prominent within Take His Legs, and could be a significant step forward in helping others discuss their own challenges.
Tony, who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an injury at work, is a prominent member of the Warrington Wolves. But, fighting an internal battle, Tony opens up about his battle with PTSD and mental illness within the documentary, highlighting why sport and having a close team cheering you on is so vital.
“I’m quite close with Tony, and I thought I knew what was going on. I knew there was a degree of anxiety and PTSD; but, to hear that, to hear that he woke up after winning the world championship and felt like he didn’t want to be here was, again, a real eye opener,” remembers Adam.
“That’s the lovely thing [about the team]: if one of us is quiet, or hasn’t been at training for a few weeks, someone will drop a message and ask if they’re OK. We all look out for each other.”
The impact sport has on mental health is no secret, and Tony’s journey is evidence of this. Having a strong network beside him, there is that chance to open up about mental health, worries and feelings before going onto the rugby pitch to play the sport he loves.
Adam agrees: “It’s almost like magic when it comes to sport and mental health. For me, when it comes to sport – specifically disability sport – it’s a mental health issue as much as a physical issue. Once governing bodies’ catch onto that they will realise that one bleeds into the other.”
The documentary (made by made by Noah Media Group and commissioned for Channel 4 by Fozia Khan) is a journey of self-discovery, determination, challenge and overcoming barriers that many disabled people face.
“The more I get involved in disability sport, from the Paralympics to PDRL, the more I realise that people who play disability sport don’t particularly feel like they’re disabled,” emphasises Adam. “In fact, a lot of disabled people don’t feel like they’re disabled or any different, why give us a name? I’m just missing a bit.
“Everyone has something they feel awkward about. I would hope that by the end of the documentary the message isn’t just there for people with disabilities.”
Throughout Take His Legs, the confidence players gain is awe-inspiring. From a young boy with cerebral palsy scoring a try and kissing his shirt badge, to the Warrington Wolves beating A the South Sydney Rabbitohs to pick up the world championship cup: PDRL has the power to open many doors.
A distinctive moment within the documentary comes from Dan, who became an amputee after a road traffic accident. After the Warrington Wolves’ first game against Leeds, Dan had to have his stump re-amputated. This doesn’t deter Dan from returning to the game.
Adam says: “There is that one moment with Dan, who says that when he’s on the pitch he forgets about his disability. Freedom is the word he uses.
“This goes for all of us, I don’t have that much of a disability, but it’s always there. In the community your disability might be what makes you different, when you’re playing with a group of people who have cerebral palsy or hand and leg deficiencies, and so on, we’ve all got [a disability], in some way, and it doesn’t make you different.
“There is that sense of fitting in finally. Also, it’s a distraction. You’re running around chasing a rugby ball, thinking about who you’re going to tackle, how you’re going to get into position: you forget. For want of a better word, it makes you feel normal.”
And Adam hopes that Take His Legs will reveal the powerful impact sport has had on his own personally journey, alongside the experiences and positive changes it has had on the Warrington Wolves players.
Don’t miss Adam Hills: Take His Legs on Channel 4 this Friday, 13 December at 11:30pm. Share your thoughts using the hashtag #TakeHisLegs