Cast Offs: the verdict
Channel 4 says its new comedy, which starts tonight, is a television landmark. But what do disabled viewers think?
Tuesday 24 November 2009
It is written by some of the brains behind Skins and Shameless and hopes to do for disabled people what Queer as Folk did for the gay community. Cast Offs, Channel 4's latest no-holds-barred, late-night drama, about a fictitious reality television show which strands a group of disabled people on a desert island for three months, is about as close to the bone as you can get.
With its sex-fuelled storylines and controversial jokes it hopes, in the words of one producer, to "make people see that disabled people are no more and no less messed up than anyone else".
The actors, all of whom have the same disabilities they portray, were chosen before the script was written and many had never even acted before. Each of the episodes is filmed from the viewpoint of the six characters as they struggle to adjust to living in the wilderness and with each other. The drama flits between the island itself and the characters' lives before they signed up to their reality TV predicament.
There is Dan, a former rugby player now wheelchair-bound after a car accident, whose father somehow thinks that packing his son off to a reality show will be a good form of therapy; Tom, a pathologically lazy blind man with a penchant for shotguns; Will, an activist who describes himself as the Thalidomide community's answer to Barack Obama; and Gabriella, a pregnant deaf woman who quickly falls out with the camp's most outspoken member Carrie, an Australian dwarf who makes up for her lack of height with the sheer force of her personality.
The first episode, which airs tonight, follows the story of Dan as he struggles to come to terms with his newfound disability surrounded by people who have had many more years getting used to the stares, questions and misguided sympathy. They are not, he learns, as sympathetic to his plight as he might have hoped.
Plenty of television critics will be offering their opinions over the coming weeks. But what will disabled people make of it?
Rebecca Young, 24 'It's funny and it flies close to the wind'
"Cast Offs is a painfully true representation of life for disabled people," says Ms Young, who was born with a degenerative physical impairment and has been using a powered wheelchair since she was 19.
"There were many moments in the first episode that stood out and made me think, 'Yup, I definitely recognise that.' There's a scene when all the castaways go skinny dipping in the sea. They take Dan but then forget about him and run off. Once some friends took me to the park and then ran off because of some wasps, leaving me with the wasps. The show made me chuckle because it was so personally recognisable.
"It's definitely funny and at times it flies very close to the wind. But I think they strike the right balance each time. At no point did I think that they'd gone too far. What the first episode is trying to highlight is how insensitive people can be towards disabled people if they smother them with pity and sympathy. Perhaps the best thing the show does is illustrate that crips are a diverse bunch of people who drink, have casual sex and are sometimes rude to each other, just like anyone else."
Clair Lewis, 36 'At times it was deeply painful to watch'
"I nipped to the supermarket last week and was given three quid entirely unsolicited," says Ms Lewis, who uses a wheelchair. "I shall be using the cash to start a T-shirt fund for the 'We all shot Pudsey Bear' Facebook group.
"So I am sure you can easily imagine that I was happy to down tools from triumphing over tragedy this week to find out how much damage Cast Offs was going to cause ... or not.
"For a while I couldn't decide my overall opinion, it's not necessarily automatic to say I like something which takes great effort to follow and conjures up so much tension in so many scenes, so much humiliation and embarrassment. I alternately cringed and laughed all the way through. At times it was deeply painful to watch and it certainly digs into the dirt of the reality of the experiences of a newly disabled person.
"First I am both cringing and laughing out loud at how Dan's parents are treating him in his 'new life' as a wheelchair user. Then I'm laughing at how even a muscular sportsman can't get over the sand dunes in less than an hour and a half. Eat your heart out Tanni Grey-Thompson – because this is the other side of the story of speed on wheels. The ability to wheel anywhere on sand is a rare talent. I hope they didn't have to do too many retakes."
Stacey Finnigan, 25 'It's a move in right direction'
"The way disabled people are represented on TV is getting better," says Ms Finnigan, who uses a powered wheelchair. "It's not perfect, because it is always their disability that defines them. But there have been improvements and Cast Offs is a move in the right direction.
"I think it's quite powerful but bits of it make me uncomfortable, such as the idea that disabled people will only get sex if they pay for it. These kind of subjects make me feel like the show is aimed at a non-disabled audience.
"Although Cast Offs is cleverer than programmes that have tried to do something similar, such as the BBC's I'm With Stupid, I'm worried that non-disabled people are going to suddenly think it's OK to take the piss out of disabled people, because some of the characters in the show do just that."
Phil Samphire, 43 'It's the little nuances that made me chuckle'
Mr Samphire, who has had limited use of his left arm since birth, was not looking forward to the show but has been impressed. He says: "When I saw the trailer I cringed. I was fearful this would be yet another show that was using disability to draw in viewers.
"But Cast Offs is nothing like that. What it does extremely well is show disabled people as people who have their own flaws like anybody else.
"There's a lovely little segment when all the participants on the island are introducing themselves and they don't fully understand each other's impairments. The disabled community struggles with these issues like anyone else. It's the little nuances like that which really made me chuckle. Cast Offs doesn't ask for your sympathy, but it also doesn't make disabled people look stupid."
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