How We Did It: Then Barbara Met Alan
Directors Bruce Goodison and Amit Sharma explain how they made BBC2’s upcoming factual drama, Then Barbara Met Alan.
Marking the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act, Then Barbara Met Alan is based on the true story of the people behind a direct action campaign that led to significant strides in the battle for civil rights for people with disabilities in Britain. Brittany.
Produced by Dragonfly Film and TV Ltd and One Shoe Films, it is written by multiple Bafta winner Jack Thorne and award-winning actress-turned-writer Genevieve Barr.
The film tells the story through the eyes of Barbara Lisicki (Ruth Madeley) and Alan Holdsworth, two disabled cabaret artists who met at a concert in 1989 and would become the driving force behind DAN – the Direct Action Network, whose coordinated protests propelled the campaign for disability rights into the spotlight.
It was a very special moment to read what Jack and Geneviève had written. A script with the working title of ‘Piss on Pity’ is sure to grab attention and this was the first clue as to the stylistic approach to this work. Barbara and Alan used anger, humor and music as energy to inspire and strike fear into anyone who should be denied their basic rights. They were also lovers – and arguably their love could not survive the cause of aligning disability rights with other human rights.
Jack was adamant that “he has to have a punk attitude”, so we decided to make this as “in your face” as possible. We had to honor the activism of a gathering of people with disabilities who intended to be provocative and definitely NOT complaining. The idea of collective action was inspiring but also daunting – how to show not one but three huge protest rallies with a factual drama budget?
The real deal
Barbara is a great person in real life and the story is largely told from her perspective – so meeting and understanding her was crucial and a bit scary. When we introduced her to Ruth Madeley, who was to play her, we talked about the importance of being comfortable in a role and whether it mattered that Ruth had a naturally Mancunian accent. But Barbara, in her North London drawl and piercing blue eyes, insisted: “You’re an actor, aren’t you? You should do my accent! and that was it. Let’s go for Ruth’s vocal coach. It was clear to us that we not only needed to capture Barbara’s spirit, but also the voice and the famous cackle.
We’ve visited Barbara on several occasions with an entire art team who have faithfully reproduced the wonderfully flamboyant designs of Barbara’s bedroom with its leopard-print duvet and living room – carefully noting the sofa propped up on blocks for easy seating for a wheelchair user and the clear, smooth floors with no bumps or bumps and the doors of the correct width for wheelchairs.
Next, Barbara showed us her fantastic photo albums which inspired the idea of not only showing the real Barbara and Alan growing up, but also mixing them with the actors playing Barb and Alan. This mixture of reality and fiction was key to the success of this film because too often audiences can forget that they were real people in these really extreme situations. We had a brilliant archivist, Alex Cowan, who had an impressive knowledge of everything activists did. We scoured the photos and video to find elements we could faithfully reconstruct, which then allowed us to cut from our own footage seamlessly to the archive and back again. It managed to capture the energy and style of the 90s. Plus, it appealed to producers who were sweating the idea of re-enacting an 11,000-person demonstration at Westminster Bridge, halting traffic in 1995!
Shooting our “fake” archives was a really interesting aspect of the shoot. The camera crew, led by the very patient DOP Suzanne Salvati, had to procure old VHS cameras, BETA SP and a 16mm film camera to film our own archives in substance. So we made the early decision to process all public scenes of the day in 4:3 format (like the news) and all private theatrical moments in 16:9 format on Alexa. Our editor Chris Watson really had his work cut out for him working with all of these formats as well as actual archive hours.
There were also so many great black and white photos taken by the great disability documentarian David Hevey. He had captured a photo of the young family – which our photographer brilliantly copied – and he also appears in the film as Mr. Telethon’s interviewer Joe Simpson – a repeat of something he had done a while ago over 20 years in roughly the same location outside the now defunct LWT building.
Working with a co-director has been an incredible experience and we encourage others to embrace the skills that different filmmaking and life experiences can bring to a project like this. Bruce was very determined to work with someone who had direct experience of working with deaf and disabled actors, and someone who could help build a new language and a new way of working. If you want to operate differently and embrace difference, it’s important to challenge the normative ways in which drama is done.
The addition of Amit was crucial for working differently and for the actors to feel safe – that the myriad of needs were met, understood and addressed in a positive way. Too often we don’t commit to working with disabled talent because of the old excuses – oh it takes too long, we have to modify too much, etc. We are able to meet covid compliance needs within months – but it has taken nearly 50 years to start thinking about how to accommodate disabled talent. Yes, it takes more time and therefore more money – but television is rich in money and don’t sweat paying millions for a lead actor or a car chase. There are improvements for filming in Scotland or Wales – why not for filming with a disability, that’s the mind – sewn.
Bruce has told stories to empower people from marginalized communities such as Anne (ITV Hub) and Murdered by my Father (BBC). Amit too with his CripTales (BBC) films and extensive work in theatre. Where we each had a lack of knowledge, we supported each other, and this shared working language impacted how we created Then Barbara Met Alan.
It was imperative to also choose deaf and disabled people from diverse backgrounds – a true reflection of activists past and present. There were concerns that there might not be the required level of acting talent, but the cast of Daniel Edwards had access to some impressive talent. As you can understand – given that TV shows aren’t overwhelmingly representative of deaf and disabled people (1 in 4 if you didn’t know) – a lot of talent gets overlooked by agents. So we launched a national casting call on social media and found many incredibly skilled actors through non-traditional means. They all had to do a lot of homework to prepare themselves to understand the politics and language of the time if they were called upon to improvise. Of course they were!
The rehearsals were split into two and we started by working with Ruth and Arthur to get to the heart of their scenes. We also wanted to show the intimacy of their relationship, because romantic relationships with a disability are never really shown on mainstream television. It’s understandably complex and required tricky navigation for the actors. Ruth and Arthur were very determined to communicate what intimacy was like between two disabled people with different disabilities – it was one of the most creatively exciting aspects of this shoot, because love can be so objectified and fictionalized in mainstream drama. With the help of brilliant intimacy coaches, great lighting, and plenty of laughs at all paraphernalia, a new visual language for communicating something not normally explored was born. We hope this gives others the confidence to explore different ways to represent love and pain.
It was also very important to bring together all of the activist actors as it gave us the opportunity to show some of the archive footage so that everyone was fully aware of what DAN (Direct Action Network) was and up to where they went to get their message across. It allowed us to have creative fun with all things access and, more importantly, getting the team to bond.
sound and vision
The music and performance were instrumental as both Barbara and Alan were cabaret acts. We reinvented Alan’s music and protest lyrics with help from the brilliant Chaz Jankel of the Blockheads and co-writer of many Ian Dury hits. We also discovered in rehearsal that Arthur played the trumpet, so we incorporated that as well. Arthur performing live with a mostly disabled band gave everyone goosebumps. People were really clapping and dancing! It was important to communicate the “fuck you” spirit of the day in the most entertaining way possible. Too often, political stories take themselves too seriously and we wanted to avoid ‘watching the pity’ – because guess what? We ‘Piss on Pity’ – the central theme of the DAN movement that we wanted to reflect. The film is an ode to this spirit.
What united the two of us was the importance of telling a story like this to a wider audience for the first time. There are many aspects that need to be handled differently. Some have been toned down in advance – like wheelchair accessible changing rooms, makeup, costumes, etc. Some things you can’t plan ahead – like the crew using basic sign language to communicate on and off set. It’s easy to think that the barriers faced by deaf and disabled people are physical. These are the things that can be overcome (eventually!). The main barrier is attitude and having people with disabilities as the director, writer and lead of a film shows that it can be done.