Then Barbara Met Alan – An Introduction

An introduction by Jack Thorne and Genevieve Barr

Genevieve Barr: When I was 15, my work experience was in a school for the deaf. I’d never met another young deaf person before and rather than trying to just meet one, I met a hundred. It was striking, humbling, emotional and terrifying.

My memories are impressionistic – of hands and expression in a vast, beautiful language. Of a tribe and a kinship. Teachers embroiled in – what felt like at the time – a war of lips and teeth against these hands – to educate in a way they had been told were right. Ways I had been told were right. Born deaf, raised oral, I was accustomed to this bigger idea that we as disabled people needed to fit in to systems and spaces even if they did not naturally accommodate us. To challenge it and the unfairness of it was years away in my consciousness. But these deaf children stuck with me – their spirit of ‘compadre togetherness’ which I think Then Barbara Met Alan has knitted in its soul.

Jack Thorne: When I was 22 I went to a Graeae theatre open day. Because of my disability I’d had a rocky few years, six months bed bound, leaving and then going back to university, but when at university having to go to hospital twice a week – it wasn’t a happy time. And most of all, I was struggling with pain. A pain I couldn’t quite get my head around. But because my condition was invisible I didn’t quite know how to deal with it.

Anyway, at that open day I met a woman called Alex Bulmer. She was, and is brilliant. I said I didn’t know whether I belonged here and she said “of course you do, you’re disabled”. And that moment was like a lightning bolt. I felt I belonged somewhere. This is the story about the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. It was far from a perfect victory – and its imperfections are felt even now. But it was a seminal moment because it gave disabled people legal rights.

Genevieve and Jack: Then Barbara Met Alan is centred on two extraordinary people who helped make that happen: Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth. Both cabaret performers, their hearts in stand-up and punk music, they set up DAN – Direct Action Network – a fiery, impassioned group of protesters campaigning for rights.

All over the country, disabled people were isolated in their homes, unable to access public transport, to get jobs, viewed as burdens. Barbara, Alan and the DANners insisted it was everyone else that was the problem, handcuffing themselves to buses, trains, the Houses of Parliament, even shutting down Westminster Bridge in the battle for rights and they won.

Along the way, they fell in love and had a family. It has been an exceptional experience telling this. We’ve formed a writing partnership which has since had led on to two other projects.

But more than that, we’ve discovered a history that we’re very proud to be part of, and a love and admiration for Barbara, Alan and all who flew with them. It seems wild that this story has been waiting for over 20 years to be told. But perhaps now is better. Would Barbara and Alan have been played by disabled actors 20 years ago? Even – five years ago?

Ruth Madeley and Arthur Hughes are two hugely talented disabled actors who should have incredible careers ahead of them. It feels right that it was them. Something else this production did which was very special was actively hire 30 disabled cast and crew. Hundreds more applied. The supply is clearly there and yet disabled people are nowhere near represented in the programmes we make. The CDN’s report into this makes startling reading, 20 percent of the country’s population has a disability and nowhere near that is reflected in the people who make television.

An hour was not nearly enough for the riches that come with Barbara and Alan or the disabled community at large, but hopefully it’s the start of something. Something new, exciting and that challenges the way we look at how we live.