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17 April 2014

Sky's television drama series The Smoke presents a central disabled child character played by disabled actress Eve Smith. Having received accolades by the critics, Ju Gosling reviews the role of Grace from a disability perspective

It is still rare to see a disabled child portrayed on television, and even rarer for the part to be played by a disabled actor. Thirteen-year-old Eve Smith’s recent appearances in Sky TV’s new firefighter series The Smoke are therefore worthy of both note and celebration.

Smith plays the role of ten-year-old Grace, the birth daughter of female star Jodie Whittaker’s character Trish. Grace, who has cerebral palsy, was adopted at birth, but is reunited with Trish during the course of the series. (How and why are never fully explained.)

In the scene where they meet for the first time (Episode 5), Grace is shown practicing running in her back garden. Her adoptive mother explains that she already has Paralympic ambitions. The series is about ‘heroes’, and the scene stresses that heroes can be both female and disabled.

(Unusually, Smith was cast although she also has Di George Syndrome, which means she experiences other impairments in addition to cerebral palsy. While Smith is already a committed artist, she will not become a runner in real life. This is a radical departure from the norm, where disabled actors are cast to play ‘more disabled’ roles.)

It is apparent from this first scene, played with extraordinary delicacy and authenticity, that Grace is highly valued by both her birth and adoptive mothers. She is far from being ‘a burden’, as disabled children are so often portrayed. It is also made clear that it was the chaos in Trish’s life at the time, rather than Grace’s impairments, which was responsible for the adoption.

In Episode 7, Grace’s welfare and Trish’s guilt become the main drivers of the action. Grace, her adoptive mother and Trish are traveling together through the Blackwall Tunnel (the series is set in East London), presumably as part of an access visit. They become trapped when an accident takes place further into the tunnel, and a fire begins.

At first Trish is able to keep the trio together in the car, but as tension mounts and the smoke thickens, Grace’s adoptive mother insists on leaving the car. Grace goes with her, but has become separated by the time Trish catches up, while Grace’s adoptive mother has been injured. Trish subsequently heads back into the smoke but is unable to find Grace, and at the end of the episode we believe Trish has died in the fire (fortunately, in the final episode we discover she has survived).

In the plot lines that we have learned to expect from past dramas about the emergency services, Grace would have been the passive subject of the final rescue scene. Trish would have died sacrificing herself for Grace, and/or Grace would have died (particularly because the nature of her impairments mean that she cannot be ‘cured’).

In writer Lucy Kirkwood’s world, however, Grace has already been found safe outside the tunnel; it is her non-disabled mother who has panicked and become injured. The assumption can only be that Grace has rescued herself. More like this please!

The Smoke is available on demand via Sky's website

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