01 October 2014
Francesca Martinez is a comedian, actor and writer. She has cerebal palsy, but prefers the term “wobbly” and believes that broadcasters should stop standing in the way of talented people with a difference
Your parents were completely accepting of your wobblyness, but how did they feel about you going into show business?
They were fine, because they come from creative backgrounds themselves. My dad has always had a huge passion for writing and my mum comes from a family of artists, so I was lucky in that respect when I announced I wanted to be a performer. I think they would have been more shocked if I had said I wanted to be a lawyer.
At 14 you got a role in Grange Hill, but you didn’t like watching yourself on TV, why was that?
Because at that time I was at an all girl’s school and very unhappy. I started out there full of confidence, but within a couple of years that eroded away. The girls focused on all the things that I thought were unimportant, like how I walked and talked. I quickly became isolated and my whole personality went through a bit of a beating. When Grange Hill came along it was a godsend. I really thrived because I was taken out of an environment where I was negatively judged and suddenly I was in an environment that was really positive. I was there because of my talent and I began to make friends again. I was shocked when I saw myself on screen for that first time because I had not come to terms with being wobbly. Being confronted with it was something I found very difficult. So I stopped watching myself and that helped me carry on with the illusion that I was normal and I was perfectly fine. So, although I was happy at Grange Hill I could not really accept myself at that time.
Have we finally conquered the ‘females aren’t funny’ mindset?
It’s not something I have particularly focused on because when I walked out onto stage 15 years ago I don’t think anyone was thinking “Oh my God, it’s a woman!”. I have had a different kind of discrimination. But I think things are changing. The new remit from the BBC about panel shows needing at least one female guest is a good move. I know there are worries about tokenism, but I feel that is a stage you have to go through to achieve equality; without that stage, things would largely remain the same.
Can you explain why you think the concept of ‘being normal’ is a political issue?
We grow up in a world with very clear ideas on what normal is and that can dictate people’s values and self-worth. When I realised that I was as normal as everyone else, because I had never met ‘a normal person’ it was a very liberating thought. It was also a political awakening because it made me question why all these pressures to be normal exist, especially when normal is an impossible concept. We live in a largely consumer society and for that to function successfully most of us have to feel that we are not good enough as we are, because that way we buy things to make us feel better. Part of writing my book was a desire to help other people realise that life is too short to waste on trivial things and feeling bad about yourself. I don’t think social change can happen if everyone is worrying about the thigh gap.
Why are broadcasters so unwilling to cast actors with disabilities in roles where disability is not the focus of the storyline?
The media chooses to show a very narrow slice of humanity and that representation serves corporate goals. Disability challenges this because it is not seen as aspirational and it also brings people in touch with reality. It challenges people, makes them question their own perspectives. So it does a very different thing to what is required by the majority of the media. There is also a lack of disabled people making TV shows. There is still a real fear among producers about representing difference. For example, I have pitched sitcoms in the past and I have been told “this is good and funny, but your character is too happy”. They are assuming that if you are wobbly you can’t be happy. I happen to be a generally upbeat person and this shows that the barrier isn’t just getting on screen, it’s how you are portrayed. So the questions are: Can we get more diversity on screen? And how do you portray that? It’s not about saying “put disabled people on screen because we need more”, it’s about not standing in the way of a talented person with a difference. No one should be given a job if they are not considered talented just to tick some box. There needs to be an attitude shift from seeing disabled people as ‘an issue’ to seeing disabled performers as a group of creatives like anyone else who deserve to work and be represented in mainstream entertainment. All the people I have had support from in my career, people such as Jonathan Ross and Frank Skinner, they support me because they said: “Look, you’re funny” – if you’re funny they feel you should be seen.