Television: Not your average leading man

Mat Fraser tackles Thalidomider sexuality in the drama Every Time You Look at Me
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The Independent Online

The last person to call the Thalidomider actor Mat Fraser a "flid" had a lucky escape, as Fraser is a black belt in an advanced form of self-defence. "It was some drunken bloke in Kentish Town about five years ago," he says. "I thought: 'Now is my chance. I can go over and kick this guy's butt for all the people who called me 'flid' in the past.' But I then thought: 'Do I give a toss?' No, I didn't. It was a good moment."

As viewers who saw Fraser's recent Channel 4 documentary Happy Birthday Thalidomide will know, Fraser was born with short arms and no thumbs after his mother was persuaded to take Thalidomide as a sleeping aid. He is the most visible of Britain's 400 or so surviving Thalidomiders, both in documentaries and in shows like the controversial Freak Out, which was made by the same people as Eurotrash. (I stand by it," he says, "although we probably didn't need the gratuitous topless models.") Now, however, he can be seen doing his day job - as an actor, in BBC2's ground-breaking drama Every Time You Look at Me, written by Lizzie Mickery.

Fraser plays Chris, a Thalidomider teacher on the verge of commitment to an able-bodied woman. And then, in the time-honoured fashion, his eyes meet those of Nicky, a young woman of restricted growth. Love at first sight, perhaps, until their enraptured gazes move over the rest of each other's body. Fraser, who is currently in a long-term relationship, talked in his recent documentary about his own unwillingness to date another disabled person - an unwillingness he recognises as self-disgust. "It meant I didn't respect myself," he says.

Every Time You Look at Me is a powerful, groundbreaking piece of television, which covers most of the bases about disability without ever feeling, well, heavy-handed. It feels real, partly thanks to the input by Fraser and his excellent co-star, Lisa Hammond. It was Fraser, for example, who suggested there might be a problem for Chris in putting on a condom. "I defy any man reading this to put on a condom without using his thumbs," he tells me.

Does Fraser, I wonder, hark after roles that are not directly connected to his disability? Would he like to be the first Thalidomider Hamlet?

"No, I don't," he says firmly. "I'd like to be the first Thalidomider Malvolio, or Caliban, or Richard III. I want the audience to go, 'Oh, Malvolio's got short arms, but I don't suppose that affects the way he's obsessed about his stockings.'

"But if I'm getting the buckle of the swash on, only I can't quite hold the sword up, I don't want them to have to make the extra leap of PC faith to believe that I was Hamlet when we know damn well Hamlet didn't have short arms. If he sword-fights, don't give the job to a bloke with short arms."

In the meantime, he's starring in a new film, Stallions, playing the owner of a male escort agency. "I man the phones," he deadpans.

"I'm also writing Thalidomide! The Musical, which is going to be a two-hander with an able-bodied actress. I love musicals - even the crap ones, although I have to say I won't be going to see We Will Rock You. Thanks awfully, Ben, but I prefer your early work."

'Every Time You Look at Me' begins on BBC2 on 14 April