Adventures in the Sitcom Trade: The Story of ‘Inmates’

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Allan Sutherland has written and performed extensively on the subject of disability for over thirty years, using art – amongst other things – as a vehicle through which to explore his own experiences of living with epilepsy. Here, he charts his experience of having written ‘Inmates’ – the first BBC drama written by a disabled writer for a cast of disabled actors.

Still of a group of disabled actors sitting around a table

Nabil Shaban, Mik Scarlett and Jag Plah star in the 1992 version of ‘Inmates’

One morning in 1984 I woke up and thought ‘I could write a sitcom about a group of disabled people in a long-stay institution’. I wish I could have ideas like that more often, since that was the beginning of ‘Inmates’, which I and my co-writer Stuart Morris sold to the BBC three times over, a total of six pilot television episodes, a 30 minute radio pilot and a 90 minute radio play, producing a broadcast television pilot and 90 minute radio play.

The show, written to be performed by disabled actors, concerns a group of disabled characters in the St Vitus Institution for Incurables. Sparky, the central character, is a kind of Ernie Bilko, always full of schemes for getting the better of the institution’s rules, making money, cheering up his friends or simply having a bit of fun to break the monotony of institutional life. Gobbo is by far the brightest of the group, but, because he only communicates via an alphabet board, this is not always realised by others. They were each placed here as children, a temporary measure while more suitable accommodation was found, then got lost in the system and are still here as adults thirty years later. Barney, who is learning disabled and a little older than the others, looked after them when they were little and lonely, forming the basis of a lifelong friendship. They are joined by Harry, a newer arrival, recently disabled as a result of an accident.

This was an idea that was groundbreaking for its time. In 1984 all television companies employed illegally low numbers of disabled people; if you worked in BBC Television Centre, nothing in your working life made you aware of the very existence of disabled people.  (Inevitably, this affected the view such people had of the society they were representing and the audience they were representing it to.)  Disabled characters were almost always played by non-disabled actors. No television series employed a disabled actor in a disabled role.

Disability Arts was just getting off the ground. Graeae Theatre had been established in 1980, but was still a long way off receiving secure regular Arts Council funding. The first issue of Disability Arts in London Magazine would be published in November 1986, and London Disability Arts Forum would be launched in April 1987. The Disability Movement was starting to highlight issues of representation of disabled people on television and in charity appeals.  In July 1987 Fair Play would organise a seminar on ‘Images and Employment of Disabled People at ITV Headquarters and in September 1990 David Hevey’s book ‘The Creatures that Time Forgot’ would be published.  The first demonstration against the ITV Telethon would come in May 1990.

I was to discover that ‘Inmates’ was an idea whose time had almost come.  It would be greeted with enthusiasm by some, and bafflement or outright hostility by others. One quite common response would be that it should perhaps be a drama rather than comedy.

I wrote two scripts and started sending them out.  As a sign of the times, I’d like to quote the response from James Gilbert at Thames Television. He described ‘Inmates’ as ‘a brave try at mounting a show about disabled people’. He then added a comment that, reading it now, I find totally incomprehensible: “We do our show in front of a studio audience, and from a practical point of view, apart from any other consideration, your series would just not work.”  It is worth noting that, when a pilot programme was eventually made by the BBC, it was done with a studio audience.

Seamus Cassidy, the deputy commissioning editor for comedy at Channel Four, liked the scripts and called me in for a meeting. While this did not lead to a commission, it did reassure me that the project was capable of attracting serious interest.

When London Disability Arts Forum was launched at Watermans Arts Centre in April 1987, activities included a rehearsed reading of ‘Inmates’ by members of Graeae Theatre. For this I wrote a reading version of the script, with the addition of a narrator. Adapting to the planned casting, the three lead characters had been made female and Harry dropped altogether.

At about this point I started working with Stuart Morris as a co-writer. After a couple of other projects, we decided to rework ‘Inmates’ as a 60 minute play, ‘Just Like Eddie’. We returned to the original characters, but replaced Harry with the more developed character of Wayne, a disabled rock-and-roller, who ends up at St Vitus when, after his mother’s death, he sets fire to the house by getting drunk and dropping a lit joint down the back of the sofa.

We showed this script to the late Joy Lale, then a script editor in BBC Television Drama, whom we had met through the London Screenwriters Workshop. Joy was extremely supportive to us. Her opinion was that it ought to be a sitcom, and she offered to help us write and submit that sitcom.

We wrote and rewrote the new draft, with Joy giving us advice and notes. One interesting sign of the times came in Joy’s response to a scene in ‘Just Like Eddie’ where Wayne’s next-door neighbours have an argument over whether to help him – but they have it in BSL. Joy found this utterly unbelievable. Even someone as liberal, as progressive as Joy Lale, who was all in favour of ‘Inmates’ and thought it was just the sort of thing the BBC should be making, found it impossible to believe that there could be two sets of disabled people living in the same street.

When Joy was satisfied with the script, she forwarded it to Gareth Gwenlan, the BBC’s Head of Comedy. Gwenlan was stepping down from the role that year (1990), and had some money left in his budget, which he decided to use as development funds for some writers he thought worthy of encouragement.  We received a commission to write three ‘Inmates’ scripts towards a potential series of six (one of which we had already written).  We knocked out another two, and then managed to persuade the BBC to commission the second half of the series as well.

Unfortunately, Gwenlan’s successor, Robin Nash, was less in tune with the series’ subject.  He commissioned a pilot episode; as the BBC had already bought six scripts he could hardly do otherwise.

Stuart and I were new to television. The actors had no television experience – unavoidably so, because British television had at the time no history of employing disabled actors. What the show could really have done with would have been the appointment of some BBC Comedy old-timer to lick everything into shape. Instead, the BBC added further levels of inexperience by giving the show a first-time producer and director. ‘Inmates’ was being used as a training exercise.

All disabled characters were played by disabled actors, something that had never been done before in the history of British television. Casting was simplified by the fact that we had not defined characters’ impairments unless we had a specific reason for doing so. ‘Inmates’ was a series about disabled characters, but not about impairment.

The casting still raised several issues, partly because the available pool of disabled actors was so small.  (As barriers have fallen, both inside and outside the broadcasting industry, and the amount of available work has increased, the number of experienced actors has increased.  It’s not rocket science.)  Jag Plah, an actor with cerebral palsy, was cast as Gobbo, a character with much more severe CP.  Is that acceptable?  The same issue occurred more recently with the casting R.J.Mitte in ‘Breaking Bad’. Our producer was insistent that available rehearsal time would not allow the casting of a learning-disabled actor, even if we could find one. (This would be much more difficult to maintain nowadays, when there are a number of established learning-disabled actors.)  So we chose from Equity’s Register of Disabled Performers Roger Bryan, whose appealing nature made him a natural for Barney.  There was an important point of principle at stake in maintaining a disabled cast, but I am not convinced that experience of life with an artificial foot necessarily provides transferrable skills for playing someone with a learning disability. Sparky was played by Nabil Shaban, Wayne by Mik Scarlet, a wheelchair-using musician, but no rocker.

The pilot sat on the shelf a long time, then in 1992 was put out at a week’s notice with very little publicity.

I and Stuart subsequently wrote ‘The Charity Game’, an hour-long script about two disabled people, tired of being exploited by charity fundraising, who set up their own charity with themselves as beneficiaries.  This served as a calling-card which helped us to get on to writing for EastEnders.  We also, in 1993, created ‘WICR’, a twelve-part series for young people broadcast by Radio Five before that channel was abolished in 1994.  We’d discovered that radio is a much more writer-friendly medium than television, and we wanted to do more of it . So, in 1995, we sent a letter to BBC Radio Drama introducing ourselves and asking if we could come in to discuss the possibility of us writing for them.

We were called in to a meeting with a producer, Celia de Woolf, which we assumed was purely to discuss background questions like what sort of thing they were looking for, after which we could go away and start brainstorming ideas.  But then Celia asked ‘So what are you working on at the moment?’  I thought, ‘Oh my god, she wants us to pitch something’. Thinking fast, I said, ‘well, we’ve got this idea about these disabled guys in an institution…’  Stuart, quick on the uptake, joined in, we improvised an argument about why this would make great radio, and we walked out of that room with a commission to write a pilot episode of ‘Inmates’ as a radio series.

Celia had been insistent that the show needed to have women characters in it. So we brought Wayne’s Mum back to life, creating someone who made a great character, but a hopeless parent; in a key scene, she tried to persuade Wayne to leave St Vitus and make himself homeless, to improve her chances of getting a council flat.  We added Mrs Briggs, a formidable administrator. And we made our pilot episode about the male characters’ discovery that they are about to be joined by two women from another residential home that is being redecorated.

But the biggest change was in our use of Gobbo.  In the television version, Gobbo had not really proved productive as a character.  The idea of showing an intelligent person who is constantly underestimated because of his speech impairment is an attractive one, but in the visual medium of television, it really didn’t deliver very much.  We could show that Gobbo was reading Kafka for example, but that was just providing information about him, breaking the basic scriptwriters’ rule of ‘show, don’t tell’.  We didn’t actually meet him as a person, which is the essence of characterisation.

One of the great strengths of radio is its ability to provide a character’s inner monologue.  We took full advantage of this, and made Gobbo the narrator of the radio version of ‘Inmates’.  The episode opened in the institution’s toilets, where two male care assistants are hauling Gobbo from his chair to give him a suppository.  As they leave him on the loo, his voice comes in, a wry observer taking time off from his considerations of the hegemony of modernism in the post-capitalist zeitgeist to introduce us to life in what has become the Lady Pollock Home for Incurables.

Our pilot episode was well received.  David Hunter, head of Radio Drama, described it as having ‘the best opening scene I’ve read in years’. Radio Drama were happy to go ahead with making the full series.

Unfortunately, the slot in which it would have been broadcast was one shared between Drama and Light Entertainment, a rival radio fiefdom. The final decision went to the Head of Radio Four, and he evidently had difficulties with the subject matter.  The word came down that it didn’t work and it wasn’t funny, especially the opening scene.

BBC Drama stood by us, however.  Unable to commission ‘Inmates’ as a series, they commissioned it as a 90′ Saturday play.  So we wrote that. We brought in the two women, Beryl and Alice.  We explored the tensions arising from the men’s ambivalent attitude to change – they want it, but they are afraid of it.  And finally we revealed that Beryl and Alice’s home was not being redecorated, it was being sold off for redevelopment, so our characters were stuck with each other whether they liked it or not.

An interesting issue arose when casting Gobbo.  Should we cast an actor with cerebral palsy, albeit less extreme, so that his internal monologue is to some extent in a CP voice?  We decided that it would be preferable to maximise the contrast between his external and internal voices, and the part was played by Gerard McDermott, a blind actor.  Sparky was played by Matthew Fraser, Wayne by Daryl Beeton and Barney by Jonathan Keeble.  Beryl and Alison were played by Mandy Coleran and Mandy Redvers-Higgins from the disabled sketch troupe ‘No Excuses’.  One of the non-disabled characters, Care Assistant One, was played by the blind actor Dave Kent.

The show was recorded in July 1997 and broadcast in March 1998.

My feeling is that it should have been a series.  We did a fairly decent job of stretching it to ninety minutes, but it wasn’t really a ninety minute idea.  By the time we wrote the pilot radio script, we had a really well developed set of characters.  In a series format, listeners could have got to know those characters and come back to them week after week. A friend of mine once described a good sitcom as being like an oyster: each week you put a piece of grit in and it forms a pearl around it.  I think the radio series of ‘Inmates’ had that potential.

People sometimes ask how to write comedy about disabled characters without ridiculing disabled people. (This question may have lain behind all those early suggestions that the show would work better as a drama.)  To my mind, the answer is simple.  Write about the characters.  Create strong characters and write about them. Make them work for you.  It’s okay for those characters to have frailties, and to make fun of them, so long as we can see them as individuals.

It’s also acceptable to create comedy from the impedimenta of disabled life.  We got a lot of mileage from Gobbo’s alphabet board, for example, my favourite joke being Sparky’s tetchy ‘FOFF?  What d’you mean FOFF?  Oh, Eff off..”

Finally, I’d like to point out that the big strength of ‘Inmates’ is that, at its core, it is not about disability, it’s about friendship. And that’s something everybody can relate to.