On Wednesday 2 May at 11:30 am on BBC Radio 4, a new four-part half-hour sitcom began. Ability stars disabled stand-up comedian, and BBC New Comedy Award winner, Lee Ridley AKA Lost Voice Guy. Deborah Caulfield listened to the first two episodes and was barely amused.
Ability, however, which he co-wrote with Katherine Jakeways, is not Ridley’s best work to date. I listened to the whole of the first two episodes several times, for reviewing purposes. I won’t be listening to any more.
Maybe it’s because I’m disabled that I felt more alienated than entertained by Ability. I wanted to like it. It’s a new show and, refreshingly, the central character is disabled.
But it contains too many tired old tropes and notions for my needs.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin with the title. Is it sophistry or is it a confused and stupid joke? You decide. Either way, it gets the show off to a poor start.
People who believe disability is all bad tend to use the word ‘ability’ to wash, or wish, away the negative associations that are largely products of their own, or someone else’s, imagination. As if ability and disability were opposites.
Ability draws on Ridley’s real life experiences, weaving them into the sitcom.
Fine. As long as the narrative works, it shouldn’t matter how much is real and how much is made up.
But the narrative doesn’t work for me. Which means the comedy doesn’t either.
Briefly, it goes like this (from the BBC website):
Matt (played by Ridley) leaves home for the first time. His parents are worried about how he’ll manage without them. Matt is worried too, but he’s determined to ‘find his independence’. The care agency has sent him Bob (Allan Mustafa). Bob treats Matt ‘like an equal and the two form a bond’.
This bond (the word ‘special’ is absent though more than a little implied) between Matt and Bob is the central idea that drives the story. They’re set up as a cor-blimey double act, like Del Boy and Rodney. Bob is the loveable south London rogue whose capers Matt (a Geordie) gets caught up in. They josh, jibe and generally compete for the attention (etc) of Matt’s best/flat mate, Jess, and any other female that comes their way.
Matt’s (and Ridley’s) experiences, the BBC says, are about ‘coping with his disability, cerebral palsy.’ No mention here of a world built by and for non-disabled people, a society that more often than not fails to meet disabled people’s access needs.
Ability is not about disability from a disabled person’s lived experience. Rather, it feeds off disabled people’s stories, cherry-picking and twisting them into a narrative that reflects and confirms non-disabled people’s fears and fantasies about what it’s like to be disabled.
Ability breathes new life into old myths and misconceptions. Like the one that says inside every disabled person there’s a ‘normal’, unimpaired person struggling to get out.
Or that being unable to wipe your own bottom is the epitome of an undignified existence. There’s a new (to me) version of this in the first episode, when Matt says he’ll never be independent because he can’t do it ‘without looking in the mirror.’
Independent living is a prerequisite for an autonomous and dignified existence for disabled people who need support in their daily lives. But because of austerity this reasonable and achievable aspiration has become an impossible dream for many. A visit to Disability News Service will confirm this as fact.
The truth is that independence is about choice and control in decision-making, not doing everything yourself.
Good comedy can do more than amuse; it can also correct misconceptions and challenge assumptions. It can show disabled people as they really are, in all their glorious, asymmetrical diversity. Ridley himself believes this, and disabled artists such as Laurence Clark, Liz Carr, Francesca Martinez and many others have been doing it brilliantly for years.
So, while there’s nothing remotely funny about disabled people’s human rights being systematically trampled over, there is something darkly unfunny about a new sitcom whose writers have chosen to ignore all that, deciding instead to articulate non-disabled people’s weirdness with disability. Like we enjoyed it so much the first hundred times we heard it, we couldn’t wait to hear it again.
Disabled people’s voices on the radio are a rarity, so in theory Ability had a lot going for it.
Independent living, over protective parenting, being stared at in public, the benefits system, relationships, communication – these are all subjects that might benefit from a good airing.
But was it brave or naïve to cram so many big issues into such a small and overcrowded space? A space so stuffed with non-disabled people, both on- and off -air, that even Ridley’s two voices strain to be heard above the clichés and clamour for us all to be “getting on like a house on fire.”
I’d like to think we’ve advanced, as a society, from head-patting and does-he-take-sugar attitudes; in many ways, thanks to the disability arts movement, we have.
So was it deliberate or accidental not to commission a sitcom from a disabled writer with the experience and, yes, the ability to move things forward, rather than backwards, on disability; to more accurately reflect the richness of disabled people’s realities, and at the same time give us a laugh?
Goodness knows we need it.