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Then Barbara Met Alan – a revolutionary love story

As BBC Two drama Then Barbara Met Alan reveals the direct action that led to the Disability Discrimination Act, stars Ruth Madeley and Arthur Hughes, and writers Jack Thorne and Genevieve Barr, take us inside the story of an unsung British civil rights struggle.

‘Piss on pity’. That was the slogan. The Disabled People’s  Direct Action Network, aka DAN, coined it for their riotous campaign to take down the ITV Telethon. 

Inspired by another phrase, ‘Nothing about us without us’, taken from the anti-apartheid movement, in 1992 they brought an end to the top-down charity fundraiser that prised pennies from viewers by presenting and parading people with disability to be pitied.  

Then they set their sights on changing the law. For this was part of a wider civil rights struggle, demanding accessible transport, accessible housing, equality – an end to discrimination against people with disabilities.  

Two of DAN’s leading lights, Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth, are at the centre of a sparky and spirited new one-off drama. Then Barbara Met Alan is written by Jack Thorne and Genevieve Barr, directed by Amit Sharma, and stars Ruth Madeley and Arthur Hughes. Everything about it is groundbreaking – from the unsung heroics of the story to the majority disabled cast and crew that produced it. The result of DAN’s campaigning was the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. Not that it was the end of the struggle. Not by any means. 

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“While the Disability Discrimination Act was a piece of shit, what Barbara and Alan did was extraordinary,” explains Barr. “The idea was to tell the story of how Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth changed the world, but in doing so, destroyed their relationship. Two arcs in opposing directions – the rising political movement and the crushing love story. Telling the story was important because disabled stories are rarely seen on screen, let alone celebrated.” 

It’s a story of revolt, of protest, of a movement that grew out of the cabaret scene and had art and music and outrage and fun flowing through it. 

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“They were punk. They were wild. They did things on their own terms,” says Madeley, who was nominated for a Bafta for her breakthrough role in Thorne’s drama Don’t Take My Baby back in 2016 and plays Lisicki.  

“This was really badass stuff. None of it was preachy. We don’t see enough of that when it comes to disabled characters on TV. That made the story so exciting and electric – and even more incredible because it is true. It’s such a huge part of British history that so many people still don’t know about. 

“We knew we were creating something special that hasn’t been seen on TV before. Two disabled actors playing the leads in what is essentially a love story.” 

Lisicki was a comedian, Holdsworth a musician and provocateur when they met, fell in love and kickstarted a revolution. Hughes spoke to Holdsworth before filming began. “One of the things Alan said to me is that it was so much fun,” he recalls. “Maybe they were scared, but when you are not represented, not listened to and people are dying, they didn’t give a shit any more.”  

It was a concerted, noisy campaign to put disabled voices at the heart of the conversation about disability.  

“They were presented as objects of charity, in need of help. ‘Piss on Pity’ was the counteraction,” says Barr.  

“Barbara and Alan wanted to challenge these paternalistic perceptions about disability, make people realise that society is the problem with its barriers and attitudes. Thousands came to the South Bank to protest. They got Telethon cancelled. They wore ‘Piss on Pity’ T-shirts. I’m still hoping for a T-shirt. I’d wear it all the time.” 

“We’re both waiting on the T-shirt,” adds co-writer Thorne, whose credits range from Help, starring Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer, about the Covid in care homes catastrophe to His Dark Materials, and whose rousing MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival was full of fire and fury, demanding greater access and representation for disabled people in the TV industry. 

1995 DAN London protest
Lisicki and Holdsworth handcuff themselves to a London bus in a 1995 protest about lack of access on public transport
Photo: G.P.Essex / Alamy Stock Photo

Madeley, whose star has continued to rise with a starring role in Russell T Davies’s Years and Years in 2019, has no such bother. “I unashamedly took so many T-shirts from the set. I have Piss On Pity T-shirts, I have DAN T-shirts, I have the lot,” she laughs.  

She might need them. There might need to be further protests.  

“Barbara references it herself at the end of the film – the fight is far from over and in many ways has got worse in the last 10 or so years,” says Thorne.  

“As Frances Ryan references in her book Crippled, the ‘austerity’ measures the Cameron regime brought in contained a whole raft of cuts to disability spending. And Covid revealed an incredibly ableist society. The time is right for DAN II.” 

Madeley, who has spina bifida and has worked closely with the charity Whizz Kidz since she was young, agrees. The Disability Discrimination Act was a “piece of shit” because it did not lead to real change. The provisions it made were not enforced or enacted.  

“One thing I’m sure will stick out to every disabled person who watches this is that a lot of what they were fighting for back then, we’re still having to fight for now,” she says.  

“Accessible transport is still nowhere near. Neither is accessible housing and employment. It’s a bit depressing. But they have not stopped campaigning. They’re as passionate as ever. I hope this rallies people to get behind them.” 

Meanwhile, Thorne and Barr are leading a charge for change in their industry.  “Our pressure group, Underlying Health Condition, is campaigning for better accessibility in the television industry,” explains Barr. “The hope being anybody with a disability can enter a production and do their job much as anybody else does.”  

Making a disabled-led film means changes to showbusiness as usual. Because too often creative spaces are not equally accessible. “The nature of filming a show that is disabled-led means it needs more in-built financial thought, because the difference between disability and any other diversity is that disability comes with additional requirements,” explains Barr.  

“It comes with the need for an accessible toilet. To hire a carer to help get ready at 3am for a 7am shoot. A BSL interpreter. A ramp. There’s growing recognition that we need to create better structures to support
disabled people within the industry.” 

Thorne adds: “There is a beautiful change happening, is it a momentum? I hope so. It’s desperately overdue. Casting is improving and there seems to be – and this is entirely unscientific – a change in disabled writers being commissioned. But behind the scenes the numbers are still pretty abysmal.” 

Hughes is having a big year. Then Barbara Met Alan is his biggest TV role. And he is now rehearsing with the RSC to play Richard III, where he will be the first disabled actor to take on the role with the most prestigious drama troupe in the country. 

“I wish I had seen Mat Fraser [who appears as a member of DAN in this] playing him at Hull Truck, but before that I hadn’t heard of any disabled actors playing Richard III,” he says. “And yet he is a disabled man living in an ableist world. So if anyone was going to understand it… 

“Ruth and I have discussed this. It is such an important next step in pushing representation. For disabled people to see themselves telling these stories. That’s why the story of disability civil rights being told with disabled bodies, disabled voices, is so important.”  

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After seeing his performance in Then Barbara Met Alan ticket sales for Richard III should be brisk.  

“Sometimes you get really lucky,” says Thorne. “With Ruth and Arthur we were atrociously lucky. We knew Ruth was perfect for this, she is one of the actors of her generation. Arthur was more of a surprise, because he’s a sweet-natured, kind man and sometimes it’s hard to imagine actors
playing away from themselves. But he’s also wild, and we didn’t know he had a wildness – we’re both astonished by the performance he gave.” 

For too long, TV commissioners have taken the easy route. “I feel we’re still 20 years behind other forms of diversity,” says Madeley. “Disability seems to be the one that’s thought about last.” Thorne hopes minds are changing. “We need one big show that takes all before it, an I May Destroy You, a show that provokes a groundswell of change”, he says. 

Could this be the one? It certainly packs a punch. If so, Hughes knows it is, in part, thanks to Holdsworth, Lisicki and their comrades in DAN who put their health, relationships and creativity on the line for future generations. 

“It was a hard battle,” says Hughes. “I feel like any kind of success I might be having now is because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants who really pushed and had the bravery to stand up against the system.” 

Then Barbara Met Alan is on BBC Two on March 21 at 9pm, then iPlayer

his article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

@adey70

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