How did Changing Faces come about?
Forty-three years ago, I looked at myself as an 18-and-a-half-year-old, lying in a bed in a burns unit in south London having completely devastated my face in a car fire. It was my fault, I'd turned a Land Rover over and it had blown up. It probably took me seven years to get myself back to being a fully-fledged citizen. I then moved to Guernsey with my wife and spent 13 years as a dairy farmer. Then there were the big fires of the Eighties – Piper Alpha, Bradford City, King's Cross – and I got a chance to write a book. I set up as a one-man band and now it's grown to 40 people across the country.
You were invited to be a guest news anchor in 2009 for Channel 5...
That was a first – somebody with a facial disfigurement reading the news. There's a turning point when disfigurement can no longer be used as a nice little shorthand for 'sad, villainous, nasty'.
Where do you think the idea of the scarred villain comes from?
I think mythology is not very helpful. If you go back in history, a lot of art tended to suggest that ghouls and monsters had unpleasant faces. Fear is clearly something that comes as a scary-looking thing, and the movies pretty early on used that as an easy shorthand.
Any prime offenders?
The things that really annoy us are the orcs in Lord of the Rings. If you read Tolkien, there's no mention that the orcs have any kind of scarring. It's the same in the Bond movies. People hardly notice it now – that's the shocking thing – but we are gradually drawing attention to it and I hope that over a period of five to 10 years, it will become a thing of the past.
I see that Changing Faces had a campaign against The Lone Ranger Lego models last year and now one against Moshi Monsters.
As soon as we pointed out that it wasn't necessary to use the wording – 'a ruthless outlaw whose scarred face is a perfect reflection of the bottomless pit that passes for his soul' – Lego removed it. But Moshi Monsters was another matter; they've refused. The villain is called Freakface. It's a game for 80 million kids and they're picking up that it's OK to say facial disfigurement and villainy go hand-in-hand. It's positively 18th-century.
And what about society's broader obsession with looks?
I think appearance norms are narrowing. I think that if we're not careful, the next generation of children, particularly young girls, will feel that unless they fit into this narrow norm, their life is very unlikely to be successful. We have to bin that.
If you could give a piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
I'd say hunt out the fellow travellers in life's struggle, because they probably aren't the people you previously thought of as role models. I have drawn enormous support from people who have broken through. Feminism was important to me: probably I'd say, read Doris Lessing. But I'd actually be more interested to speak to my pre-accident self.
And what would you say to him?
It would be more or less along the lines of, "You might think that your good looks are going to carry you all the way through to success and happiness, but just be careful". I think one of the great things about going through what I went through was that it gave me a much more enhanced view of humanity than I would have had otherwise.
James Partridge OBE, aged 57, is the founder and CEO of the charity Changing Faces, which supports people with disfigurements. After a car accident left him with 40 per cent burns, he spent a year receiving treatment before studying at Oxford University. James and his wife Caroline have three children and split their time between London and GuernseyReuse content