fri 10/04/2020

Cast Offs: a comedy drama about disability | reviews, news & interviews

Cast Offs: a comedy drama about disability

Cast Offs: a comedy drama about disability

The creators of a pioneering comedy drama about disability explain themselves

Channel 4 put six disabled people on a desert island for three months to see if they can fend for themselves. That’s the startling premise of Cast Offs - a new drama co-written by Alex Bulmer, Tony Roche and Jack Thorne. Does team writing really work? And can you get laughs out of such sensitive material. theartsdesk invited the three writers to interview one another.

TONY ROCHE: OK, I’ll ask the questions because I’m lazy and that seems like it will be the least amount of work. Any objections?

ALEX BULMER: Yes.

JACK THORNE: Obviously.

TONY: Great. We’re agreed. So, first question. Jack, can you explain a bit about how the project came about?

JACK: The project came about from Alison Walsh, the Disability Advisor at Channel 4, who wanted to do a drama series. She put it out to pitch and the guys at Eleven Film, Joel Wilson and Jamie Campbell, came up with this pastiche on Beyond Boundaries. They were more focused on behind the camera - the attitudes of producers to disability. Alison then suggested they talked to me. They did. And then Judy Counihan got involved as executive producer. And Judy suggested that I talk to you, Tony - because I'd like you and we'd complement you - and I said that I'd like Alex involved - because I like her and thought she'd complement us. And then every one met each other and sort of got on and Judy rang us up every night telling us she loved us, but if we just did this one little thing for her the scripts would be so much better. And slowly the show evolved to what it is now.

TONY: Yes, it changed a bit as we went along. I remember when we first met up we talked about steering it away from being an out-and-out satire on reality shows - which it could have been - partly because Dead Set had just done that and partly because we wanted it to be more about the individual stories.

JACK: And right at the beginning, when the piece was going to be far broader, we were going to end episode one with our blind character accidentally walking off a cliff. I kind of like that idea. Just because I kind of wanted us to see him walk and then just not be there any more.

TONY: Yeah, I always thought that was a weird idea. But maybe it would have been brilliant. Question to you both. When people asked you what you were working on, what would you say?

JACK: It's only in the last year when meeting a stranger who's asked what I do that I've replied “writer”. Before that I used to reply “teacher”. Partly because I was and am shy and didn't consider writing a legitimate profession. Partly because of the danger they'd reply, “Oh, I write too,” and then I'd have to listen to them talk about this fantasy novel they're writing about their dog who's also a merman.

ALEX: I said I was writing for a new comedy, no, drama, no, dram-edy - or is it com-ma? About six disabled people who are marooned on an island with pigs and sheep, or is it chickens and pigs?

willTONY: That brings up an interesting point. How would you classify the show? Apart from "brilliant" and "potentially award-winning" and "in colour"?

JACK: Mel Brooks said, "Comedy is when you accidentally walk into an open sewer and die. Tragedy is when I have a hangnail.” I love that quote.

TONY: Would you like to elaborate on that?

JACK: No.

TONY: Great. Thanks. So… next question. Did this show feel different to working on other shows?

JACK: I don't know. It was my first experience of being responsible for something. Or at least a television something, with a television schedule. In film and theatre the process is elongated. If something goes wrong, you have the time to fix it. In television you don't get that opportunity. If a script wasn't right, then I knew I'd just not to have to sleep until it was right. The thing I will never forget is episode five, a script I forced Alex to write when she didn't have time to write it, without us properly breaking the story first, and a script that production concerns meant I had to then rewrite (because we couldn't afford the locations - which meant me ruining all of Alex's best work), and then a read-through that was the worst read-through I've ever had. Two hours later we had a reworked structure. And actually it meant that the glory of Alex's comedy and characters was able to come to the fore and suddenly we had an episode that really rocked and rolled.

aprilALEX: For me it was my first television gig. So I was petrified. And excited. And again petrified. Although I’ve been a mentor to new playwrights, and I’ve developed scripts with actors, this was the most “team” writing experience I’d had. I really like the tag-team approach, or at least I did in this case. I don’t remember discussing each other’s ideas.  We all just kind of jumped in and made it work as we went along. I did notice my scripts came back with more penis jokes than before.

TONY: That would have been Jack. Definitely Jack.

JACK: What about you?

TONY: I didn’t write any penis jokes.

JACK: No, I meant what about you – did you find the show different?

TONY: Totally different. I’d never worked on a drama before so that was weird and terrifying. And I’d never worked with you before and you’re weird and terrifying. I mean, the first time I meet you you’re telling me you want to push a blind man off a cliff.

JACK: In the script, not in actual life.

‘For six hours of Cast Offs you could buy one hour of Skins, 22 minutes of Doctor Who, eight minutes of The Wire or three minutes of Friends’

TONY: And I could see it was a risky project. For a start, I write comedy. What do I know about drama? Nothing. All I know about drama is it usually involves shouting and spittle and detective inspectors. There was a lot at stake for the actors. Disabled actors don’t want to be in a stinky drama about disability any more than able-bodied actors – maybe less. Peter Mitchell, who plays Dan, had never acted in anything before and that was a big risk for the directors and producers to take.

JACK: And we knew we’d have an incredibly short amount of time to write the show. We had to cast the show before we could really write the scripts and that took longer than we thought.

gabrelaTONY: And on top of that you just knew people were going to have preconceptions about it. A friend of mine asked me what I was working on and when I explained the premise they said, “That sounds awful.” There was always a chance people would dismiss it as dull and worthy. Or the opposite – accuse it of trying to be controversial for the sake of it. Or see it as “niche” and expect it to be scheduled at 3am on a Monday morning.

ALEX: Question from me. Are there any characters you’d like to write more about? And why? I’d like to have more time with April [cherubism], a quiet woman with a surprising past], and Carrie [dwarfism], passionate and unpredictable, she doesn’t see herself as disabled. It took time getting a grasp on April but now that she’s there, she’s really interesting. And Carrie intrigues me, she’s a power house with lots of insecurity.

JACK: Good question! For me, it's probably Gabby [deaf], fantastically uncompromising, almost lovably evil, and Will [thalidomide] the diametric opposite of Carrie. And I have no idea why. I don't feel we undersold them but there's some darkness there that I'd have liked to have delved deeper into. I'd love to have written more about the basketball team in episode one too. They were an interesting bunch of blokes.

carrieTONY: I liked writing for Tom [blind] – the dry, sarcastic one. I don’t know why. Possibly because all the women want him and all the men want to be him – and I can relate to that.

ALEX: Who brought that brilliant show title to the writing table? And do you like it? Answer: It was Alex Bulmer. She has excellent taste. The idea was in fact Alex’s partner Claire Saddleton’s. I like it because it makes me think of being tossed aside, dismissed, a bit like trying to hail a taxi in London with a guide dog.

JACK: I also liked Maroons. But no-one else liked that.

TONY: I remember the email exchange when Alex came up with the title Cast Offs. (Or rather pretended to have come up with it, having actually stolen it from the woman she claims to love.) I remember Jack sending a reply immediately saying how great it was. And I remember thinking, “Pff, it's all right, I'm sure I could come up with something better than that.” I've since realised I couldn’t. What I did know for certain was: Maroons was a terrible title. Maroons sounded like a show about a bunch of a biscuits on an island. Why not call it Breakaways? Or Ginger Nuts? Or The Shortbread People?

‘Did you honestly think a drama series with six disabled characters and six disabled actors would be seen as just another show?’

JACK: Have you got another question?

TONY: Yes. I have. Who was your favourite co-writer? Mine was Alex.

JACK: Me too.

ALEX: Same here.

TONY: Was it harder to shoot on a lower budget?

JACK: For six hours of Cast Offs you could buy one hour of Skins, 22 minutes of Doctor Who, eight minutes of The Wire or three minutes of Friends. We basically shot on a documentary budget. And docs don't have to pay for actors, or writers or location managers or costume and make-up or - well, this list can get quite lengthy: take our imdb page and halve it. Basically docs just have to pay for a camera, a presenter and a sound crew. Drama is more expensive for a reason. And the thing is I don't think it looks low-budget. I think the shot-making, the locations, the everything, would grace a much bigger-budget show.

tomTONY: And what was the thinking behind using some non-actors?

ALEX: I wasn’t involved in the final casting decisions, but my guess is the thinking was that the show was not going to hire non-disabled actors to “crip up” and there’s a much smaller pool of disabled actors than non-disabled. I’m glad the show went for inexperience rather than, let’s say, doing a thick make-up job on Emma Fielding.

TONY: Final question. What do you think of the press coverage?

JACK: I am worried that we're now being judged by criteria so massive that we're doomed to fail. “This is the disability drama of the millennium.” There is a danger we're no longer going to be watched as a drama but as something that represents something. We don't represent anything.

TONY: I’m totally with you on that. There does seem to be a sense that people want it to be all things. So you get people saying, “It’s great but there’s too much sex,” or “It’s great but it should have been more about the reality show,” or “It’s great but one of the characters uses the phrase ‘Spastic Island’ and that’s what the show should be called.” Why? These are criticisms you don’t see levelled at many shows. “I liked The Office but it should have been called Retarded Workplace. Or David Brent is a Beardy Fuckwit.” It’s like everyone wants the show to be their own version of perfect.

danALEX: Did you honestly think we could write a drama series, with six disabled characters and six disabled actors, and it be seen as just another show? Whether I like it or not, a simple trip to the local shop can, for me, turn into a political statement or public production, not because of anything I’m doing, but because some people have never seen a blind person buying milk. Go and put six disabled people as the main characters in a telly show and you’re bound to get attention, some of which might not be liked. We all wanted to make a good show. That’s all. But I can understand why this represents something more than just a show, and that can’t be ignored.

The first episode of Cast Offs is on Channel 4 Tuesday 24 November at 11.05pm. More information here.

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters