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BBC's ground-breaking disability rights drama

the cast of then Barbara met Alan in front of a bus
the cast of then Barbara met Alan in front of a bus Image credit: theguardian.com

Most of you will be familiar with the Disability Discrimination Act which was introduced in 1995, but its doubtful comedian Barbara Lisicki and musician Alan Holdsworth ring any bells.

BBC 2 are hoping to change that when they air a ground-breaking drama which puts the two disabled rights campaigners at the forefront of a story which tells how a group of activists put pressure on Thatcher’s government to implement new measures which would safeguard people with disabilities.

The film, Then Barbara Met Alan, follows the relationship between Liscki (Ruth Madeley) and Holdsworth (Arthur Hughes) as the cabaret performers fall in love and form the Direct Action Network (DAN), which led a Conservative government into introducing the Disability Discrimination Act.

“There’s never been a story about disability told like this onscreen before,” Madeley told The Guardian.

“There was one moment when we were filming, we had hundreds of disabled people on set, and it was one of the most surreal moments of my career. I thought: ‘Why does this feel different?’ It’s because I’ve never been surrounded by so many disabled actors and creatives in one space. It felt so incredible.”

The actress was one of the driving forces behind the drama which had 16 disabled crew members and 13 of DAN representatives as part of its 55 supporting cast and 17 disabled actors out of 24.

“I just remember thinking this cannot be – I will not let this be – the only time I feel like this on set,” Madeley said.

“It felt really revolutionary. It shouldn’t have felt that way. But it did because it happens so rarely.”

Barbara and Alan grew up in the punk era, they didn’t take any prisoners. If you want a sense of their rebellious streak you only have to read one of their iconic slogans, “Piss or Pity”. But they knew how to have fun, in one scene we see the couple in a joyful paint fight in front of a bus station where they graffiti “transport for all” across the walls.

In another scene they cause havoc at the ITV Telethon, which raised money for disabled people, sending the message they wanted to put an end to “pity-porn”.

“It was so empowering. It was fun. It was real,” Hughes said. “It did feel like a watershed for this type of film being made.”

The DAN was a controversial group, a number of non-disabled activists called for the movement to soften their approach after hundreds of members stormed an invasion at the Houses of Parliament to make their voices heard.

Actual footage of protests are shown in the drama which captures people in wheelchairs attaching themselves to vehicles and stopping traffic highlight the DAN’s determination to make a change. But in some cases activism went too far leading to poor health and even death.

The drama isn’t just about human rights though, beneath its core lies a touching love story between Barbara and Alan.

“Take everything else away and you’ve got these two characters who are so strong and magnetic and fiery that you automatically want to learn more about them,” said Madeley.

“I’ve been very lucky to have played a love story on screen in the past, but this was next-level stuff. To show these two characters, who both had disabilities, fight and laugh and kiss and make love and have children … There’s so much that disabled actors and disabled characters don’t get to do on screen. We did it all.”

The script was co-written by disability campaigner and Bafta winner Jack Thorne who credits the team behind the camera.

“We were brought the story by [executive producer] Tom Pullen and Richard Bond [managing director], who had a really simple and glorious pitch – they changed the world but in doing so destroyed their relationship. Two arcs that dovetail – you can’t hope for more as a writer,” he said. “But they’re people too, and while we felt the burden of telling the story of DAN, capturing their truth was most important.”

Then Barbara Met Alan in on BBC Two, Monday 21 March at 9pm and available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.