‘Help’ Writer Jack Thorne: “Radical Thinking” Could Make British TV And Film Industry “World Leader” On Disability

EXCLUSIVE: Jack Thorne has said the British TV and film industry could be a “world leader” on disability if “radical thinking” is implemented, while the Help writer has raised concerns over the death of social realist drama.

Ahead of the unveiling of a landmark report into disability in TV compiled by his Underlying Health Condition lobbying group, the 2021 Edinburgh TV Festival MacTaggart lecturer told Deadline that broadcasters are “well aware” of the problem but solving it will be “really really complicated.” The report will be unveiled later today at an event to mark International Disability Day.

Thorne lit a fuse in August with a blistering MacTaggart address that slammed the sector for “utterly and totally failing disabled people.”

Underlying Health Condition has since surveyed industry stakeholders on how best to improve accessibility and representation, finding, for example, that there is only one accessible honey wagon in the whole country.

“I can’t begin to tell you the amount of disabled people that have had to crawl across honey wagon floors; they’re not being treated like human beings,” Thorne told Deadline. “We’ve been talking to lots of people and they’ve certainly been supportive and kind but real change is needed now. We need to get down to the nuts and bolts.”

Green shoots are emerging, considered Thorne, such as the BBC and Netflix’s landmark scripted tie-up seeking ideas from disabled talent and Channel 4’s commitment to disabled programming. But disabled people, who make up 20% of the UK population, are woefully under-represented in the industry, comprising just 7% of all roles, according to research from regulator Ofcom.

The next step is a roundtable with broadcaster and indie chiefs that will likely take place in the new year.

Thorne teased one of the report’s major recommendations – a fund to improve access for all UK studios and facilities – and said this demand will likely cause the most controversy.

“These facilities need updating but producers will feel it’s not their responsibility to [financially] support rich studios,” he added. “Some studios can pay and others will need help so we’re going to have to work out how this all works.”

“There’s clearly an appetite for change,” Thorne went on to say. “But the substantial required changes in accessibility are going to be very hard and will require money, obligations and radical thinking. If that radical thinking is done then there is a possibility that the British TV and film industry could be a genuine world leader and that is exciting.”

Thorne did criticize a small number of respondents to Underlying Health Condition’s survey, who he said showed “some aggression as they felt they were being judged.”

“We were very clear that we’re not naming and shaming but are trying to get a sense of the industry so we can make recommendations based on facts. Some of the stuff we heard [about disabled people’s experiences] was pretty dark.”

The writer, who was born with a condition called cholinergic urticaria, is widely considered to be one of the most prolific authors of his generation.

Thorne and a writing team have just wrapped on the third series of BBC1/HBO’s His Dark Materials epic and the restless scribe is working on two shows with actor-writer Genevieve Barr: the BBC’s Then Barbara Met Allan and an unannounced project. Barr, who is deaf, starred in Thorne’s The Accident for Channel 4 and is one of the major forces behind Underlying Health Condition alongside Hanna Production Co-ordinator Katie Player.

Social realism concerns

Elsewhere in a wide-ranging interview, Thorne raised concerns that super-inflation in the UK drama market is killing social realist programming, as the majority of British dramas now require international investment.

“More or less everything needs co-pro money and that means you need to think internationally about who you cast or the story you’re telling,” he added. “I’m not worried about [acclaimed social realist writer] Jimmy McGovern but I am worried about where the next Jimmy McGovern is coming from as I don’t see them on TV right now. The streamer model is brilliant in lots of ways but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the streamers are provoking a change that isn’t necessarily brilliant.”

Thorne’s social realist drama Help overcame competition from Netflix’s Squid Game and Bridgerton to win a Rose D’or award earlier this week but he stressed the show would have been “incredibly difficult to make” without the “very generous” leads Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer, who he implied were paid less than they normally would for a primetime drama.

“This isn’t Stephen Graham or Jodie Comer’s responsibility so the industry needs to think about how best to protect local voices,” he added. “This is about making sure real, local stories are told.”

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