Jack Thorne delivers moving 2021 MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival

The highly acclaimed dramatist and playwright spoke passionately during his 45-minute James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture about disability being the forgotten diversity in the television industry and a call to arms for the way forward.

Credit: Rob Langley

Jack is a celebrated and multi-award-winning creator and writer of TV shows, films and stage plays ranging from His Dark Materials, Kiri, This is England 88,86 & 90 and The Virtues to Enola Holmes, The Secret Garden, Don’t Take My Baby, The Solid Life of Sugar Water and Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.

As a disabled professional, Thorne is a vocal champion, campaigner and ally of other disabled creatives both in front of and behind the camera.

JackThorne began his MacTaggart lecture as part of this year's Edinburgh Television Festival, which promises to "accelerate change" by declaring his love for television, "My superhero skill as a child was working out ways to watch it for longer. Maximise every second I could spend in front of that precious box. My sister and I would take it in turns to watch the window for my Dad to come home whilst the other watched Neighbours. He didn’t like Neighbours, we liked it so much we would watch a window every other day for 20 minutes in order to get our dose."

Describing the art of creating television as "incredibly important" he went on to say "I think TV is beautiful. An empathy box in the corner of the room. An opportunity to provoke discussion. For me, watching TV with my Mum or my sister was always about talking. Working things out."

Citing Mark's HIV storyline in EastEnders, Russell T Davies' Queer as Folk and Alan Bleasdale's Boys From The Blackstuff as some of the shows that provoked discussion growing up, teaching him lessons he described as better lessons than those at school.

"I think that TV is where we find our place in the world, and at a time of great cruelty, TV is vital at reminding people of what humanity is. We have all lost so much. And, personally, I think the greatest thing we lost was a bit of humanity. Because this year was a year of ableism like I’ve never seen before. This was a year when a lot of disabled people died."

Jack Thorne's upcoming Channel 4 drama Help, starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham, is set in a fictional Liverpool care home and tells the moving story of the relationship between a young care home worker and a patient, whose lives are changed forever by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020.

Speaking about the research he did for that series, he revealed "I spoke to people who worked in care homes who anecdotally told me far worse stories – but those are impossible to state here for legal reasons. And it is worth saying that is the only time doing research I’ve ever had someone crying as they tried to deal with their own culpability."

"Through my job I’ve spoken to sexual abuse survivors, to people struggling through adoption, people who have lost huge things and there isn’t, of course, a trauma league, but the rawness I encountered speaking to carers was like nothing else."

"They thought they were responsible, they thought they let their residents down. Of the 48,000 Covid deaths in that first wave, 40% were care home residents. Forty per cent. And it wasn’t just care homes, disabled people all over were denied treatment. They were seen as more acceptable to die, because of conditions that had no relation to Covid 19."

"Friends of mine were told they would not get ventilated even if they needed it. Because their lives were not seen as vital. A new study, partly carried out by the ONS, estimated that, in England, between 24th January 2020 and the 28th February 2021 105,213 people died from causes involving COVID-19, 61,000 of those were disabled. That’s almost 60% of all deaths."

"And how did the country react? By using the term that helped them accept this unnecessary death. Underlying Health Condition."

Speaking about his own disability, Thorne explained how he "was a disabled person for about fifteen years, but disability can be transitory, and I don’t consider myself one anymore. But I do consider myself part of the disabled community and I am very proud to be so."

When Jack was 20, he developed a condition called cholinergic urticaria which made him allergic to outside heat as well as artificial heat, describing the pain he'd feel every time he moved - "Every time I moved, I would develop welts, and was in pain. I had to leave University, I went home, I stayed in bed. Some days were better than others, but most were pretty abysmal. I lay in my room in January in Wales with all the windows open and felt sorry for myself. I didn’t know what it meant, and I didn’t know where I fitted."

Acknowledging his privilege as a "state-educated but well-educated - white man" Thorne explained how because his condition was invisible, he didn't openly "experience prejudice" - "And as such, I have had opportunities that my disabled family have not."

"As a result of that – as a result of that history and my opportunity – I have considered it a vital part of my working life to try and further the disabled cause. And in the most part I’ve failed."

"Mostly because of my own inadequacies. But also, because the TV world is stacked against the telling of disabled stories with disabled talent."

"And that has to change because this is the thing – at a time when disabled people were so recently forgotten, at a time when disabled people were left to die, at a time when disabled people are still being ignored, TV has a responsibility."

"That empathy box has a responsibility. And yet, disability is the forgotten diversity, the one everyone leaves out of speeches. Gender, race, sexuality, all rightly get discussed at length. Disability gets relegated out. In conversations about representation, in action plans, and new era planning, disability is confined to the corner, it remains an afterthought."

"Actors – actors I admire - have taken roles they shouldn’t have; I’ve been complicit in some of those decisions. Producers have ignored disabled writers. Commissioners haven’t taken the opportunity to tell disabled stories. There are very few disabled people in front of the camera, and even fewer behind it."

Claiming "TV has failed disabled people." Thorne goes on to question how we change it, describing it as "not simple".

"Firstly, there is an attitude change needed. An attitude change as to the importance of disabled drama. This is a prejudice I’ve witnessed first-hand over and over again."

"The first drama series treatment I ever wrote was a wheelchair basketball drama. I was asked to consider writing it about a non-disabled basketball drama team, because it was “full of good ideas” and it needed “the best chance it could”."

"The fact it was disabled was dragging it down. Up to this year I had never made a single disabled story on a full drama budget."

"First I made The Spastic King on Channel 4’s Coming Up budget, then I made a made a full series called Cast Offs on a specific Channel 4 disabled budget, we had to do it for £100,000 an hour, one sixth of normal drama budget at that time, then I made a show called Don’t Take My Baby on a BBC drama doc budget."

"The show I’m making this year – Then Barbara Met Alan – which is cowritten with Genevieve Barr, one of the most talented writers I’ve ever come across, we’re making out of the history department, but thanks to the BBC finding more cash and a Netflix co-pro we have been brought up to normal budget. Yay."

"These are the shows I’ve made, but I’ve thrown many more ideas at commissioners in that time, all have been rejected."

He acknowledged that "There are disabled characters and actors appearing in other series – Liz Carr in Silent Witness, Arthur Hughes in The Innocents, Cherylee Houston in Corrie, David Proud, Rose Ayling-Ellis and Lisa Hammond in Eastenders, Sarah Gordy and Leon Harrop in The A Word, Tommy Jessop in Line of Duty, Ruth Madeley in Years and Years, Melissa Johns in Life. The list goes on. It is happening."

Before adding "But these are disabled people fitting in with non-disabled narratives, sometimes there’s great care taken in telling their stories within it, sometimes there’s not" - recommending that delegates listen to David Morrissey interviewing Liz Carr on her experiences in the industry from his podcast Who Am I This Time.

Pointing out how there are no stats for how many disabled people are employed to tell disabled stories in the UK, Thorne reference the 2018 Ruderman White Paper on Authentic Representation in TV, which found that across "across American network TV a mere 22% of characters with disabilities were portrayed by an actor with the same disability and on streaming platforms it was even worse - 20%."

Adding "since 1988, about one third of all the lead actor Oscars went to actors who portrayed characters with disabilities, yet not one of them had the disability which they played. This is a historical problem but it is a current problem. And very few are making our case, in the press and outside."