On International Day of People with Disability, Hannah Dunleavy speaks to writer, actress and funny woman Liz Carr about Silent Witness, the Right to Die and the perceived value of disabled people in the UK.
There’s a point during our interview, when Liz Carr talks about what her teenage self thought her life might be and what her life actually is now.
It’s not a saccharine or punch the sky moment; it just is. She lives independently, in London, she’s got a partner, she’s on the telly, she travels, she’s happy.
So that’s the quote to start with, I decide, looking down at my dictaphone. The batteries have run out. Bugger.
Carr’s bright, funny and cynical – (when I suggest to her that she’s not that different from her Silent Witness character, she laughs: “It’s not a massive acting challenge, no.”) – so it’s hard to imagine how she couldn’t succeed. Thinking this, I immediately realise, probably makes me part of the problem.
When we meet, the 42-year-old is back filming the BBC drama – her third series, Silent Witness’s 18th.
“It was a little bit Cinderella,” she says “in the sense they were looking for someone in particular. And I think they asked every wheelchair-using actor before me.
“The guy who was writing the episode, Tim Prager, had been at an event about including disabled people in the media. He also has a disabled son. So he said, why can’t we make this character, the forensics expert, a disabled character? And he pushed for it.
“It was very, very exciting. But I knew I wasn’t going to get it. Whenever you see disabled people in dramas, they’re the pretty ones. Like your regular person, just sitting in a chair – they don’t look freakish or frail or ill, unless it’s Casualty and they are ill.
Whenever you see disabled people in dramas, they’re the pretty ones. Like your regular person, just sitting in a chair – they don’t look freakish or frail or ill, unless it’s Casualty and they are ill.
“Apparently, as soon as he saw my audition he said, ‘that’s it’. Then he showed his son who said, ‘good luck convincing them to take her on’.
“He knows the reality.”
Months later, Carr – who’s from Bebington in the Wirral (“like Brigadoon, in that no-one knows where the fuck it is”) – got the call to say she was in.
“We were screaming. I thought I was going to be rich beyond my dreams; that weekend was the best weekend of my life, I think. And then Monday comes and they offered me four weeks’ work over seven months. The expectations were very quickly lowered.
“It’s an amazing job; I’m really privileged. But it’s bizarre and surreal and I think you have to keep looking at it like that.”
There was debate, Carr says, about how to tackle a disabled character, including whether to give her a personal assistant.
“I can’t put my coat on my by myself, I can’t got to the toilet by myself. Clarissa would have a carer. But, as they pointed out, there’s not that much drama in watching someone go to the toilet.”
Silent Witness prides itself, she says, on having a disabled character that doesn’t “go on about it”.
“In one scene my character is asked about different types of grass and she says, ‘do I look like my life is much to do with grass?’ She’s not sitting there saying ‘I’m disabled’ but she is pointing out she has a different experience of the world.
“But I can totally understand why there’s not more disabled people on TV, now I’m on TV. Directors don’t know what to do with you, writers don’t know how to write for you; they’re terrified of certain storylines.”
I fear we’ve so devalued certain groups of people – ill people, disabled people, older people – that I don’t think it’s in their best interests to enshrine in law the right of doctors to kill certain people.
Even dressing Clarissa has raised some issues.
“I walk on my toes, so I’m most comfortable in heels. The first series I was dressed like the Girl with A Dragon Tattoo but with a stupid wig.”
But, in the second season, Carr found herself in a battle about some flat, white brogues and some Velcro-fastening shoes (“A massive stereotype”).
“I did invoke my disability and say medically I can’t wear flat shoes.” She takes a rare pause: “It’s funny what becomes important.”
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones
Is the answer getting more disabled people on TV?
“I saw an interview (British actor) Mat Fraser had done for (hugely-popular FX drama) American Horror Story. He’s playing a freak in a freak show and he was saying, ‘one day, will I be cast as the romantic lead?’”
Peter Dinklage isn’t far from being cast as a romantic lead, surely?
“Yes. The power that he’s got now because of Game of Thrones is massive.
“I do think things are changing. Lisa Hammond, who is a friend of mine, she’s in EastEnders, is going to be a regular character in Vera for ITV. Cherylee Huston is on Coronation Street. Sarah Gordy was in Upstairs, Downstairs and Call the Midwife and she’s just been in something at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where her character isn’t a disabled character, per se.
“Two years ago, I’d have been more cynical. Whatever the reason behind it – tick box, Arts Council funding – things are getting better.”
If Dinklage has power, Carr now has some too. Has she become the go-to person for discussing disabled issues?
“Actually, because I’d done the BBC Ouch! podcast about disability, I was on Newsnight more before I started Silent Witness than I have been since. But now I get ‘of BBC’s Silent Witness’ after my name. And I’m aware of the power of that. People like celebrity, whatever that means.”
But, she adds, while she’s keen to make the most of the platform it gives her, like a superhero: “you should use your power for good but be careful not use it up.”
It’s a valid point given that in the week we meet, three stories about disability have dominated the media. (The sentencing of Oscar Pistorius, the news that Tania Clarence would not face a murder charge for killing her three young children and Lord Freud’s comments that disabled people should get less than minimum wage.)
“Newsnight did call about Lord Freud but I was working. That was a win-win story. There are very few people sitting at home saying, ‘let’s pay these people nothing, at least they’ll be doing something with their pathetic lives.’ You’re only going to look good with that story.
“But it’s why we need to be on the telly. Because some of the judgements at the moment about the quality of our lives are so skewed.
It’s amazing how much [Tania Clarence’s] children being disabled has mitigated how the case has been reported. And dealt with. If a mum had killed three kids she would be hated, but when the kids are disabled, it’s understandable.
I saw all these explanations in the news ‘What is SMA?’ It’s information that’s not really relevant to the crime, but it’s being brought into the conversation.
“And it’s not just about disability, there are so many groups being demonised at the moment. But we’re not even valuable enough to be paid a decent wage.”
With Clarence, she says: “It’s amazing how much her children being disabled has mitigated how the case has been reported. And dealt with. If a mum had killed three kids she would be hated, but when the kids are disabled, it’s understandable.
“I saw all these explanations in the news ‘What is SMA?’ It’s information that’s not really relevant to the crime but it’s being brought into the conversation.”
What that conversation is actually about, adds Carr, is: “The value of disabled people.
“Yes, it’s been an interesting week. Because then we get disability being used as a mitigation of guilt with Oscar Pistorius.”
It’s clear she doesn’t approve, that a “powerful” man would invoke the “powerlessness and vulnerability synonymous with disability. It’s me saying I can’t stand in flat shoes on a much grander scale.”
She laughs: “I can’t believe I made that leap.
With Lord Faulkner’s Assisted Dying Bill at the committee stage, we can’t not talk about this vision of the Right to Die.
“It puts too much power in hands of the medical profession. I’m not religious, I’m not anti-choice. And it’s not that I’m not compassionate, I hope.
“What concerns me are doctors are already a very closed shop. You will find doctors that will help you and doctors who won’t, and that’s happening now. But it will be much harder to challenge.
“Currently, where people have had assistance to end their life, it often will go through the court, so it’s there for people to see what’s going on. And I feel better with those safeguards.
“I fear we’ve so devalued certain groups of people – ill people, disabled people, older people – that I don’t think it’s in their best interests to enshrine in law the right of doctors to kill certain people.
“I think it will begin with terminally ill people and then that definition will widen. It’s not like I think people will be taking granny to the chambers. It’s much more subtle. It’s almost like constructive dismissal where so many things are happening to you – your benefits have been cut, you’re in pain, you’re ill but the home help can’t come anymore. Or your family are tired from looking after you and you don’t want to see them suffer. There are so many reasons that all come together. For some people, if we put in the right supports, would they still want to die?
“The phrase dying with dignity has been synonymous with the people who support this legislation. I don’t want people to die in pain or without dignity, I think people can have that with decent healthcare and medical care, where we plough money into palliative care.
“Hospices aren’t government funded they’re privately funded and we need to look at that and giving people the choice to die how they want. And if there’s still a group of people who aren’t happy, then we ask ‘are we in a position to provide for that?’”
That seems a good enough place to stop, so I pack away my dead dictaphone, my pen and notebook, and I make a quick trip to the bathroom before I leave.
When I emerge, Carr’s waiting for me. We should probably mention, she says, that although things may have improved, it was only a fluke meeting at a bus stop that got her an agent. Two years after joining a major BBC drama. I wave goodbye to my second lost quote of the day.
There’s still a long way to go, was the point.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.