Why BBC Class Act is an exciting step forward for disabled actors

BBC Class Act is a nationwide development programme which aims to support and raise the profile of disabled actors. Last week, we were lucky enough to attend the launch party and talk to some of the talented people involved.

On Monday, we shared a blog about Silent Witness and how amazing it is to see better representation of disability on screens, as well as a variety of exciting roles for disabled actors. We want to see more of this, which is why we’re fully behind the new BBC Class Act programme.

Last August, the BBC launched a nationwide search for talented disabled actors. From over 350 audition tapes, 32 people were were selected to attend an intensive three day skills workshop led by BBC directors. The actors were given lessons in everything from audition and camera techniques to help with their show reels, with the aim of improving their chances of being cast in more roles. At the launch, Piers Wenger from the BBC said:

“I hope the talent you see encourages you to consider disabled talent for a manner of roles. It’s crucial that all of us in the industry work collectively to nurture and include disabled actors so that we can see increased representation on our screens.”

Carly Jones, one of the talented actors who took part, tells us why this is so important to her

Carly sat on the sofa with a union jack pillow

Before this, I’d accepted that acting wasn’t my destiny

Before I became an Autism advocate, I was an actor. Autistic people, like me, have what many professionals call “obsessions” and what the kindest professionals call “special interests”.  Mine was definitely acting.

Aged four, I would be gently placed behind the sofa every time I stood in front of my parents’ TV, wanting to be the performer. As soon as I could read, Teletext became my very first auto cue!

This led to being Mary in the school nativity, attending Ravenscourt Theatre school as a teen and eventually, becoming a frustrated actress in my 20s, snatching occasional talking parts in a sea of supporting roles.

Chasing this dream wasn’t compatible with a busy life as a divorced mother of three daughters, two of whom are also Autistic.  So I decided to put my “special interest” into a box.

It was hard. I always felt more comfortable on stage than I did in everyday situations because I knew what I was meant to say and was prepared for the reply. But I accepted that acting wasn’t my destiny and moved on.

Carly looking to the side, against a dark background
Carly had put aside her dream of acting, until she took part in BBC Class Act

When I saw the BBC Class Act advert, my instant thought was “Ah I wish this had been around when I was younger” and I got on with my routine, but kind friends kept nudging me and eventually I thought “Blow it, I’ll audition!”

When I had a quiet hour at home alone, I taped my audition and nervously posted it “unlisted” on my YouTube channel. I planned to remove it later and never think about it again, but by some twist of fate, I was chosen!

Disabled actress Carly wearing sunglasses and a top that says autistic girl power

The course felt like a celebration of diversity

On the first day, I was pleasantly surprised by how different we all were. There were actors with all sorts of different impairments. Also a large percentage of BBC staff and organisers were disabled – something which I naively didn’t expect.

We had three action packed days. We auditioned, did camera work, filmed our scenes and showcased our work to our directors. Surprisingly it was not half as terrifying as I expected! The subconscious worry that this was just a box ticking exercise was quashed – this event really showcased a genuine desire for change and a celebration of diversity.

Truly it was easy to forget that we were a group of ‘disabled actors’. The actors there were extremely talented and it was clear that this initiative was set up to support talented actors, who also happen to be disabled. Rather than “let’s get some disabled people and help them act”.

I am so grateful for the three days of total support, encouragement and confidence the BBC gave me. I’m excited to see where this progresses, not only for my own personal goals, but for disability representation in the media as a whole! And maybe, just maybe, my Autistic “special interest” happens to also be a talent.

If you’re a disabled actor and you’d like to share your experiences of working, you can get in touch with the stories team.

Why tonight’s Silent Witness story is just what the industry needs

Disabled people and their stories rarely appear on TV or in films. Then, when they do, non-disabled actors are often cast to play the roles. That’s why we’re so excited about the latest Silent Witness story which will be broadcast on BBC One tonight and tomorrow.

The story – One Day – is told across two episodes and tells the story of Toby and Serena who are both disabled. They’re played by actor Toby Sams-Friedman and Rosie Jones, a brilliant comedian in her first acting role.

The story is gripping and emotional and while it’s billed as a story about hate crime, it also shines a light on a variety of issues that disabled people face, not to mention the seeming lack of urgency when it comes to addressing those issues. It also features an incredible performance from Liz Carr, a regular on the show.

Our helpline team were consulted on the script and on Tuesday, we were lucky enough to attend a screening of the episodes at BAFTA. In the Question and Answers that followed, we heard from Tim Prager who wrote the episode and actor Liz Carr. Afterwards we also chatted to Rosie Jones, who plays Serena in the episodes. Here’s what they had to say.

Rosie Jones:

“I wanted to do it justice for all the disabled people in that situation”

I come from quite a higgledy-piggledy background because I actually started behind the camera working in comedy and entertainment. Then I decided to do stand-up comedy, and along with that comes acting. I went for this role and somehow with no acting experience, I got it! So yeah, it’s my first acting job but I really enjoyed it.

The story is incredible, it’s hard going and it tackled a lot of tough subjects. I was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. But actually, I wanted to do it justice for all the disabled people in that situation. It’s incredibly important to tell this story, we need to make people more aware. And it’s so important that disabled actors are playing the roles. You can get the best actors but they don’t know what it’s like to be disabled. I do and hopefully I bring something to the role.

A women stands in a doorway looking worried
Rosie Jones, as Serena, in the first episode of One Day

Tim Prager, writer: On hiring disabled actors

“Just do it”.

I’ve known Toby since he was a little boy, I’ve watched him grow up, so it was easy for me to write that character. I have a son with cerebral palsy so it was easy for me to write Serena. What I was hoping to do with it, is to demonstrate that there is a place for all of us. That’s it.

There needs to be a will to tell stories about all sorts of people. Liz has been on the show for 6 years. The critical issue for me was that she was in it and she was a regular in it. There will always be a disabled character, whether [the story] is about disability or not. We’ll just put them in it because they can do other jobs.

[As a writer already in the industry], I’ve laid down the gauntlet and said I’ll work with disabled writers and bring them up to a technical skill level that makes them available to work on mainstream shows. And that’s what needs to happen, we need to get to a place where [all] people write all the shows that people watch.

It comes down to people saying, okay enough, let’s do it, let’s do it now.

Liz Carr, who plays Clarissa in the series:

“You’ve got the right people telling the story for a change”

It was so important [to do this story] because I don’t think that, other than on something like Panorama, I don’t know that we’ve seen some of these things on TV before.

These episodes are expressed as being about disability hate crime and really, they’re about the value we place on another human being.

Tim, comes at it from a place of experience as do we, as disabled actors. When we say ‘we should have better representation on TV’ it gets a bit boring – these episodes show why. And you’ve got the right people telling the story for a change.

There are lots of disabled people, people who championed this kind of episode and it’s a celebration. I guess the issue is, there’s so much to be done and we want it done now, I’m so impatient. Disabled actors have got to get more experience so we get there.

The performances across the board in this episode are stunning. The more we do it, the more people who work with us realise that this isn’t so bad.

Silent Witness One Day will be on BBC One at 9pm tonight – Monday 29 January – and tomorrow. 

Whatever the reason you’re having a ‘blue’ day, I’ve learned that talking is one of the best things you can do

Today, 15 January, is ‘blue Monday’ – the so-called ‘most depressing day of the year’.  For Josh, feeling ‘blue’ isn’t restricted to one day a year. In this blog, he writes about accepting his mental health struggles and why talking to people is one of the best things you can do.

For me, a lot of days feel like ‘blue Monday’. I have anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder. I haven’t been in a good place the past few months. My anxiety sometimes makes it difficult to be happy. Over the years I’ve found good coping strategies. Talking to someone was one of the best things I ever did and now I encourage others to do the same.

I first started thinking about mental health at the age of thirteen. In the beginning there was no one to help me because I was just seen as a ‘problem child’. When I told teachers that I was struggling, they didn’t take me seriously. Once, I was in an exam and I told the teacher that I was feeling sick due to anxiety. They told me to “grow up and stop being pathetic”. That sent me over the edge. I felt alone for the first time. I failed the exam and I ended up in the hospital for an emergency appointment.

A turning point

That was a turning point for me. It happened in front of 180 people at school, so not only did it impact me, but it also impacted a lot of other young people who could have been going through similar things.

After that incident, everybody started treating me a bit differently and understanding me more. I realised that I was never going to get better if I didn’t talk to people about it. That was when I really started coming to terms with myself, my own needs and my own mental health.

Smiiffy, a young disabled man, smiles by a microphone

Destigmatising mental health

I’m very open on social media. I talk about mental health in a way that destigmatises it. I make people laugh, at the same time as showing that it’s a serious thing.

I wish people were less afraid of honesty. Even in music, a lot of things about mental health are censored. YouTube won’t promote my music because I’ve mentioned that I’ve felt suicidal or depressed, and Facebook won’t promote it. It really frustrates me. Especially when you see these platforms marketing things that you don’t need. And yet I can’t promote something with a positive message.

I often feel isolated. Sometimes I just prefer to be alone. I constantly feel alone in a crowd, even if I’m surrounded by good friends. I feel like I don’t fit in, which is really difficult sometimes. I posted that on social media. I wanted to start accepting my mental health and raising awareness, letting people know that it’s okay to talk about it and that there’s help out there.

Josh sits alone in a busy pub

Talking to people can help

In most families, there’s at least one person who will understand. The same goes for friends. I try to surround myself with good people. It might be difficult at first, but I’ve learned that talking will help in the long run. People will try to find a way to help you through hard times.

If you’re still not ready or not sure if people will understand, talking on social media can help things improve. You can be anonymous and sometimes that makes it easier to talk about the fact that you’re struggling, because you know that nobody will know who you are. It can also help you find like-minded people.

Letting people know that they’re not alone, and that there are other people there who are wanting to listen to them is incredible. I know from my own experience that it can be hard at first to talk to people around you, so I always say that people can talk to me. I’m very open on social media and lots of people do reach out.

Over the years, thousands of people have messaged me and said positive things and told me that I’ve helped them open up about their own mental health, which is incredible. For people who struggle to talk or feel like they’re not going to be heard, I want you to know that you will be heard, and that speaking out about what you’re going through can really help.

If you’re having a difficult time with your mental health, you can speak to your GP or contact organisations like Mind for support.

If you’d like to share your own experiences, get in touch with the stories team.

Connect with Josh on Twitter: @JoshSmiiffy 

What the past year has taught me about kindness

The start of a new year is often a time to reflect. When Pippa acquired a long-term condition at university she felt really isolated, so she set up Spoonie Survival Kits to reach out to other people with chronic illnesses. It has been a huge success and in this blog, she reflects on how the incredible kindness of others has changed her life.

If there’s one thing the past year has taught me, it’s that even the smallest acts of kindness can make the biggest difference.

I became chronically ill halfway through my time at university and it was a bizarre experience. Being surrounded by mostly non-disabled peers had me questioning not only what my future would hold, but my self-worth too.

While I tried to adapt, I couldn’t help but notice what a lack of support there was for people like me. There are hundreds of wonderful programmes and schemes for young people in hospitals, but what about the thousands of people at home, who are too unwell to leave the house?

Living with a chronic illness can be incredibly lonely. You quickly realise just how significant the small things can be.  Even on the more difficult days, a small gesture can remind you that you can do this. With this in mind, I set up ‘Spoonie Survival Kits’.

I wanted people to know they weren’t alone

‘Spoonie’ is the slang term for someone living with chronic illness. The kits contain treats and surprises aimed at brightening someone’s day and reminding them that they are not alone, that they haven’t been forgotten.

The kits are sold online and half of the sales money is donated to charities, with the other half being put back into sustaining and growing the enterprise. In the last two years alone, we’ve sent over 700 kits to recipients all over the world, and raised over £3,500 for various charities. And the demand just keeps growing!

Pippa holding one of the gift bags
Pippa holding one of the ‘little bags of happiness’

Creating a community of kindness

Spoonie Survival Kits has taught me a humbling amount about the value of selflessness and generosity too. Since the very beginning of the project, countless people, many of whom are severely unwell themselves, have come forward to ask what they can do to help.

If it wasn’t for the support and encouragement that I’ve received, I’m not sure if Spoonie Survival Kits would be what it is now. The kindness of others is quite possibly the best source of motivation a person could wish for, and something that I will never take for granted.

We’ve found that the people who receive the kits often want to support our work, creating a cycle of ‘paying it forward’ – when the kindness shown toward you, makes you want to show kindness towards somebody else.

A circle of hands wearing bracelets around the Spoonie Survival Kits logo

What keeps me going

Spoonie Survival Kits has been a game-changer for me personally. It  gave me back my sense of purpose at a time when my physical health made me feel pretty useless.

The most rewarding aspect of the project in my eyes, has been developing accessible and remote volunteering opportunities, inclusive of chronically ill people. Everybody who works on the project has a long-term condition, and we pride ourselves on offering volunteer agreements specifically tailored around people’s individual circumstances. Many of the items within our kits are handmade by talented crafters living with chronic illnesses.

Having such a talented and dedicated team of volunteers is just one of the reasons why I love being involved with Spoonie Survival Kits, and our kit recipients often benefit all the more from knowing that those behind the enterprise are in similar positions to themselves.

When I’m having a tough symptom day and feeling sorry for myself (and believe me, there are plenty of those days), it sometimes takes just a simple nudge to encourage me to keep going. My new year’s resolution is to continue ‘paying it forward’, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to do the same!

 Find out more about Spoonie Survival Kits and support the project. 

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch with the stories team.