The first of six episodes of Cast Offs airs on Channel 4 at 11pm on Tuesday 24 November 2009. Colin Hambrook caught up with writer and associate producer Jack Thorne to find out what we can hope to expect from what promises to be a milestone in television comedy drama.
Colin Hambrook [CH]: Cast Offs is the show Channel 4 Disability Commissioning Editor, Alison Walsh, has been dreaming of since she took on the role. How did the idea for the show come about?
Jack Thorne [JT]: The Shooting Party was the initial move towards finding the baby Alison had been looking for. She wanted a drama and when Jamie Campbell and Joe Wilson pitched an idea for a behind the scenes show set on an island, Alison asked them to get me involved.
We sat down and decided pretty soon that we wanted the characters to be on camera, rather than behind the camera. Alison match-made and commissioned the series. So much of it was down to her.
CH: What was your motivation for doing Cast Offs?
JT: Alex Bulmer and I had a lot of discussion about disability arts and politics, last year during our Graeae collaboration on the Hunchback of Notre Dame. At first I felt out of place like a lot of disabled people do when they first make contact with ‘the scene.’ Then I got the fervour of the born-again crip. There is a hilarious passage in Cast Offs, when Will talks about ‘born-agains’ – the yippie crippies. That’s Alex taking the piss out of me during my crip evangalist phase.
Skins included a disabled character, as did Coming Up. I’ve always wanted to write a series for disabled actors. Cast Offs was a brilliant opportunity to write something about the disability experience which wasn’t dominated by tragedy. The run-of-the-mill exposure for disabled characters on tv is normally either tragic or acerbic.
This was a great chance to open things up and say something about the ordinariness of disabled peoples’ lives. Actually I think all the characters come across as extraordinary – but that isn’t governed by any sensibility that having an impairment is particularly important.
The first episode is more about disability – by way of introducing the six characters. But as the show goes on – and the characters become more alive - I want the audience to forget they are looking at disabled people.
When you see Carrie on screen I hope you’ll see someone who is a bit obnoxious and in love but doesn’t know how to cope with it – rather than someone with restricted growth.
Aside from obviously wanting to write something engaging, interesting and dramatic, we wanted to say that disabled people can be just as annoying as anyone else.
It was amazing how closely we all worked together – both the team of writers and the production team. I was always in conversation with everyone. The thing we discovered as the process went on was that we wanted to be specific, rather that to generalize with either our humour or our storylines.
In our first pitch the blind character was going to walk off the cliff to his death. Iniitially we were going to write something that got darker and darker. But we soon decided that going too far down the surreal comedic route, wasn’t going to serve our purpose. We wanted it to be a lot more real than that.
We had a restricted budget, which governed a lot of the production decisions. The crew did an amazing job of making the Norfolk coast look like an island. We had a small pool of actors coming forward for casting so we focused on getting the best six. This meant writing the script after having decided on who we were going with. We didn’t want to discover we’d missed the chance of using an amazing talent after having written a part for someone with the wrong gender or impairment.
We were keen to get as much information from the actors about living with disability - so that we could throw it out and forget we were watching people with impairments. So we devised a juicy 20 page questionaire – asking each of the actors to answer intentionally explicit and embarrassing questions.
It gave us some background material, which then largely got thrown away as we developed the characters.
CH: I am particularly interested in the impact Vicky Wright’s character April is going to have on the consciousness of the general public. Airing the same week as Blue Peter’s ‘Send a smile’ – her natural, unaffected presence on screen is bound to influence the media’s prejudices about people with facial disfigurements.
JT: Amanda did a pretty effortless job of directing Vickys’ episode. Even though she was the least experienced actor, the job came naturally to her.
We wanted her character to be significant but unobtrusive. All the others are a bit loud. April simply has charisma. It is uncanny. The longer you spend with April – the less you see her as someone who looks different.
There is a chilling scene during her story where a stranger appears suddenly and pulls out a camera to shoot her - out of pure voyeurism. She just walks on by without turning a hair. It says it all.
CH: Do you think there will be another series of Cast Offs?
JT: It’s probably a one-off, but maybe, depending on the success of show we may do something else with it. We’d have to reinvent the context but it would be lovely to work with the same group of actors again.
Me and Joel would love to do something about the Paralympics. It angers me the way it gets marginalized. I think there is lots of interesting stuff to be said about how hard you have to work to be a Paralympian. There may be a show about the GB Basketball team in the making.
CH: Lastly I’d like to offer congratulations on the AMI award for BBC Radio 4 and Graeae’s production of Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Thanks for that. David Bower (of Signdance Collective) was amazing as Quasimodo. The intensity with which he got into the role was the most physical performance I think I’ve ever seen.
CH: And good luck with Cast Offs. I hope it’s a big success…