Then Barbara Met Alan: review by Anna Morell

Fri,17 November 2023
Blog Equality & Rights
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PISS ON PITY. When was the last time you heard that phrase? A sentiment we all still feel, but language from a different time. A time when anger was still an energy, and Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth were at the front end of a movement for change – real change – and made it happen.

Last year, BBC TWO screened Then Barbara Met Alan – a drama based on real events in disability history. Stories those who were there still tell, but largely hidden from wider public consciousness.

It is no polite, worthy documentary. It’s more dangerous than that. It shows real Disabled people being wholly themselves. Confident, demanding, forces of nature. Impolite. Not Standing For It. And resisting in a way which worked. At least for a while.

It shows how little has changed – doorframes we can’t wheel through. Gormless pavement users breaking our pace. Charity (“giving pennies to the pot when the kitchen’s on fire”), not baseline state safety nets which actually work. The admiration we get without equality. The inspiration we are without equity.

“We fight every single battle” Alan tells Barbara, before entering an inaccessible trattoria, and asking them if they don’t like Disabled people in their restaurant. This was 1990, “when you get a pat on the head, and a fuck off if you moan too much,” says Barbara. Plus ça change. The response is a trying to be helpful Othering – a table outside on the pavement. The only table outside on the pavement.

Housing, stairs, public transport, employment – all the inequalities laid bare. And what has changed? Ramps on buses (and a refusal to deploy them more often than not). Lifts (often out of order). Housing… employment… we know how those ones still go.

It shows how campaigners got arrested, frequently, and then held in police vans, due to the inaccessibility of police stations and cells. It shows how they raided the ITV Telethon, calling for rights, not charity, as a serious Michael Aspel grimaces with disapproval.

And it shows how our rights got thwarted by 82 out-of-the-blue amendments to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill by five Tory backbenchers, who, rather than pissing on pity, pissed the allotted Parliamentary time up the wall – a move designed to protect big business from the expense of implementing equity. A move facilitated by Nicholas Scott, the Minister for The Disabled (sic), whose own daughter Victoria worked as a Parliamentary Campaign Officer for the forerunner of Disability Rights UK, RADAR.

This is a love story. A story which tells the battered, bruised and brilliant story of Barbara and Alan, but also of our community. Our bright, bold, beautiful, worn out, angry, frustrated, tired, tireless, broke, broken, unbroken community.

Punk may be long gone. But what has it morphed into? Is it time for a bigger revival of its spirit?

The social model. Nothing about us without us. Rights not charity. These phrases run through the blood of this film. But do they run through the blood of society? Not yet. Absolutely not yet.

There is a seriousness, a determination, an energy and a playfulness crackling through this film we still desperately need to see. Sparks fly out of it from all angles. I can’t help wondering if at least some of us need to dry our knackered tinder out, and re-catch a fierce flame.

Anna Morell is DR UK's Media and Communications Manager.

Originally posted