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Ruth Madeley Says Then Barbara Met Alan Is ‘Highlight Of Her Career’

March 21, 2022

BAFTA-nominated actress Ruth Madeley has described upcoming BBC Two film Then Barbara Met Alan as “the highlight” of her career after being approached by co-writer Jack Thorne to play activist Barbara Lisicki.

The one-off drama explores the true story of how Barbara and her partner Alan Holdsworth (Arthur Hughes) founded DAN – the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network – and lead protests for disabled rights.

Their campaign eventually led to the Disability Discrimination Act becoming law in 1995, providing the first protections against disability discrimination in the UK.

“For so many reasons, this has been the highlight of my career but also the highlight of my existence as a disabled woman,” Madeley said at a recent press event.

“As soon as Jack told me about it, I was like, ‘Yes, I’m all in!’ and that fire and that passion only grew more when I got the pleasure of meeting this f**king warrior woman superhero [Lisicki], who I think is absolutely incredible.”

Madeley – who was born with spina bifida – admitted that portraying Barbara on-screen was “terrifying” given all she’d accomplished for disabled people. “I was so frightened, because I’d come on board this really early and then I thought, ‘What if she hates me?’

“What if she thinks, ‘Why did you hire her, of all people?’ – I was just really desperate to do Barbara justice and also the story of DAN and what was achieved.”

Though he played a supporting role in Thorne’s Channel 4 drama Help, the role of Alan marks actor Arthur Hughes’ first lead role on-screen.

“As a disabled actor, to play a lead role, it’s rare,” said Hughes, who has radial dysplasia affecting his right arm. “So to play such a fantastic character as Alan was… obviously I was so excited.

“But to be around so many disabled creatives, I’d never been around so many disabled people in one place. It was massively empowering. I was walking taller after this job.”

Thorne co-wrote Then Barbara Met Alan with actor and writer Genevieve Barr, having delivered a MacTaggart Lecture at the 2021 Edinburgh TV Festival in which he declared that “TV has failed disabled people, utterly and totally” – until Then Barbara Met Alan, he revealed he had “never made a single disabled story on a full drama budget”.

Speaking at the series launch, Thorne added: “I’m really proud of the work we did on it and I’m really proud that we got the opportunity to represent a bit of history which isn’t much talked about, because disabled history has been relegated out of the history books and it’s about time that changes.”

The cast and creative team behind the film hope that it will form part of a larger wave of stories playing out on-screen featuring disabled talent both in front of and behind the camera.

“There seems to be a huge amount of positive intent as far as making disabled drama and as far as having those conversations with disabled creatives,” said co-writer Barr, who is deaf. “I think there’s still a way to go to see where good intent goes.”

For now, the film’s two leads believe that the representation offered by Then Barbara Met Alan is absolutely vital. “If there was something like this film when I was younger, it would have completely changed my way of how I viewed myself, the power within myself to affect the world, change the world, and my place in it,” said Hughes.

“I hope it can awaken that in young disabled people going into a world that doesn’t always accept you, or even let you in the building. Barbara and Alan did it then, we can do it now. We have our parts to play in this industry to change things, but everyone has their parts to play.”

“I’ve spoken a lot about never seeing myself on TV growing up and that’s not going to be the case anymore for the next generation,” said Madeley. “We’ll make sure of it.”

Then Barbara Met Alan airs on Monday (21st March) at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer

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