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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cast Offs: Ground breaking drama at its best


Channel 4 gets a lot of stick from the lofty TV critics who disparage it for reality shows and documentaries that are in dubious taste.

But the channel is still a leader in bringing ground breaking drama to the screen. It is bolder about challenging taboos and the status quo than the other more conservative channels. BBC3, for all its supposed edginess, serves up a relentless diet of mediocre dross.

Channel 4's latest drama is the series Cast Offs. Hidden in the schedule (10.35pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and barely promoted, the station was perhaps a bit wary about the reception this might receive. But what a jewel of a drama!

The concept is what's ground breaking because the comedy drama features disabled actors and not in the negative or cruelly comedic comedy way in which disabled people are usually featured on TV (think of Blofeld in James Bond or the wheelchair worker in The Office.)

The premise is: six disabled people are sent to a deserted island to fend for themselves in a Channel 4 reality show similar to Survivor. The actors are all disabled in real life, as are two of the three writers. We have Tom, who is blind; April, who has Cherubism; Gabby, who is deaf; Dan, a paraplegic sportsman; Carrie, who has dwarfism, and Will who is thalidomide affected.

We find out that the characters are the same as the rest of us, except they have a disability to contend with. They're funny, sad, spiky, kind, sexy.

The first two episodes have shown life on the island interspersed with the run-up to the show for two of the characters, Dan and Tom.

The episode featuring Tom was very touching. Tom, a blind actor whose roles have been limited to "blind man in lift" was shown "teaching" an actor how it feels to be blind in certain situations. It was clear that he would have played the part better than the boorish actor, but wasn't given the chance. We saw him having dinner with the blind ex-girlfriend of his flatmate. All seemed to be going well until the next day she told him she was getting back with the flatmate and thanked him for allowing her to experience sex with a blind man.

Meanwhile back on the island, Tom is told to sit up all night with a shotgun, waiting to shoot a fox that keeps stealing the camp's food.

He probably isn't the best equipped for this task and falls asleep, earning the wrath of the other campmates. He goes back out with Dan and this time manages to shoot the fox by sensing it. He's treated as a hero and glowd with pride at having done something useful for the camp, having previously been described as being so lazy he makes Bagpuss look as if he has Attention Deficit Disorder. The humour in the programme is sometimes gentle, sometimes vicious, but it's in the natural context of people's dialogue rather than forced lines with canned laughter as you get in the appalling new comedy Miranda.

I predict a bucketful of awards for this brave new series and hopefully a gradual change in the way disabled people are portrayed on TV and in films.

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