Behind the Scenes of Then Barbara Met Alan
21 March 2022
Behind the Scenes of Then Barbara Met Alan
Producer Bryony Arnold on assembling the largest collective of disabled talent on any UK TV show
Production company: Dragonfly Film and Television, One Shoe Films
Commissioner: Clare Sillery, Abigail Priddle, Emma Loach
Length: 1 x 70 minutes
TX: Monday 21 March, 9pm, BBC2
Executive producers: Tom Pullen, Richard Bond, Jack Thorne
Directors: Bruce Goodison and Amit Sharma
Producers: Bryony Arnold and Debbie Shuter
Writers: Jack Thorne and Genevieve Barr
On Then Barbara Met Alan we wanted to embrace the notion of ‘nothing about us without us’ and therefore bring together as many people from the disabled community as possible, across every aspect of production.
Disability was put at the heart of all decision-making - it wasn’t just about writing and executing a script correctly, we were trying to create a holistic approach in every area of production.
Dragonfly was committed to this way of thinking from the outset and wanted every aspect of the film, on and off screen to be as an authentic as possible. And fortunately, the BBC and Netflix were incredibly supportive and shared our ambitions and approach.
As a member of the disabled community myself this was a vital moment of disability history to capture, and I hoped I would be able to ensure that all key decisions were approached in the right way.
At the same time, the production faced significant practical challenges: making a 70-minute factual drama about the disability civil rights movement, with as many disabled crew and cast as we could, during a pandemic, and all on a relatively modest budget.
It’s too easy to fall into the usual engrained patterns of behaviour when hiring, so we searched far and wide for disabled talent, speaking to every organisation we could think of. We also found huge success in social media callouts. We were thrilled to have over 30 disabled core cast and crew with another 55 disabled supporting artists featuring throughout.
Together, the people on set covered the whole spectrum of disability, from neurodiversity to blindness and wheelchair users to those with physical disabilities. Everyone was asked upon joining whether they had any access requirements so that these could be taken into consideration and adjustments made, and we believe this was the largest collective of disabled talent on any UK TV show to date.
This was a really location-heavy story to bring to screen. We needed to film protest scenes on Parliament Square, on the South Bank, in cabaret clubs and in locations that had to double for the Houses of Parliament.
But despite it being over 25 years since the subjects of the film fought to get disability rights enshrined in law, central London is still notoriously inaccessible as a disabled person. Therefore, making our sets accessible for cast and crew way meant overcoming a seemingly infinite number of real-world access problems.
Accessible filming facilities are always problematic and often unobtainable - disabled toilets are almost impossible to come by - so we had to think outside the box in every instance. For example, we used the gym of an accessible school for set builds and as a unit base.
We distributed a ‘Disability Crib Sheet’ to all crew and cast as a rough guide of ‘what not to say and do’ which would hopefully break down barriers and stigmas. The BBC also ran a disability awareness training course which provided an opportunity for the team to learn about fairer and more inclusive workplaces, best practice when hiring staff, and how to attract and retain disabled crew.
Communication and attitudes are as important as physical barriers, and many members of the crew spoke of how this experience has changed their perceptions and approaches towards disability in a positive way - whether being more conscious about where they place their equipment; more mindful of how disabled people would access a location; or simply just more aware of their communication style.
My tricks of the trade - Bryony Arnold
- When starting on a production ask everybody their access requirements - not just disabled people. It’s about general welfare, making things that little bit easier and more enjoyable for everyone
- Every day presents a new challenge. Have a plan A but also a plan B and a plan C. You have to find solutions quickly
- Disability is not a dirty word - don’t be afraid to ask questions. And don’t be afraid to ask for things as well
- Covid has made people more aware of the balance of work and life and we need to be more open to it as employers
On a personal level it was an immensely emotive experience for me: I had tears in my eyes on our first big crowd day when the incredible Arthur Hughes delivered a beautiful speech as disabled rights were finally enshrined in law.
Never before had I worked in an environment where I was surrounded by so many disabled creatives with such an positive and important message to convey. It was a truly magical moment to feel such a strong connection to my community.
And that’s why it’s important to tell diverse stories with diverse talent at the helm - having such a large number of disabled people on set made for a truly unique production. A rich and diverse working environment helped us to weave and capture a beautiful and vital story. Whilst there is plenty more work to do, every step in the right direction is a positive one and I truly hope this is a giant one in the right direction.
Receiving a script with the working title of ‘Piss on Pity’ was the first clue of how we would stylistically approach this film. Barbara and Alan used music, humour and anger to inspire and strike fear into anyone who should deny them their basic rights.
Our task was to capture their punk energy and to honour the activism of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (aka D.A.N), who were intent on being provocative and definitely NOT pitied.
CHALLENGING THE WAYS TO MAKE A DRAMA
Amit Sharma and Bruce Goodison, directors
Audiences can often forget that these were real people in extreme real situations. So, working with Alex Cowan, we trawled the archives for material of D.A.N. at work that we could faithfully recreate.
The camera team, led by DOP Suzanne Salvati, sourced an authentic array of old VHS, BETA SP news cameras and a 16mm film cameras to capture our reconstructions’. Then our editor Chris Watson, seamlessly intercut the old and new footage to put our cast into the heart of huge scenes of 90s direct action protests.
Amit: If you want to make work differently and embrace difference, it’s important to challenge the normative ways that drama is made and working with a co-director was an incredible experience. Bruce was determined to collaborate with someone that had direct experience of working with deaf and disabled actors and who could help build a new language and way of working.
Bruce: Where we each had a gap in knowledge, we supported one another. Working with Amit was crucial for putting disabled life experience at the heart of the creative decision making and to making the actors feel that their myriad needs are met, understood and worked with positively.
Both: What united us both was the importance of telling a story like this to a wider audience for the first time. It was also imperative to cast deaf and disabled people from diverse backgrounds too – reflecting the work of campaigners then and now. There was anxiety that there may not be the level of TV experience required – but Daniel Edwards casting found a lot of incredibly skilled actors through non-traditional means.
It’s easy to think that the barriers deaf and disabled people face are physical. Those are the things that can be overcome. The key barrier is attitudinal and having disabled people as director, writer and leads of a film shows that it can be done.