Entertainment & Culture

BFI presents a history of ‘Disabled Britain on Film’ from 1911 to the present day

The BFI has launched ‘Disabled Britain on Film’, a rich and varied free online collection of more than 170 films from across the UK, plus 20 specially curated features available to rent on BFI Player. It charts disabled people’s everyday lives onscreen over the last century, showcasing the UK’s flourishing contemporary deaf and disability-led filmmakers. 

Dating from the earliest film East End Cripples Enjoy a Happy Days Outing in Epping Forest (1911) to the most recent title, The Mask (2017), this valuable resource explores the representation of disabled people on film over the last century from across the UK.  

Giving a unique insight into the lives and everyday experiences of people, often hidden from screen history, the collection of fiction and non-fiction films reveals the  shocking treatment of disabled people. It also charts changing attitudes and improved legislation around access and inclusion.

The collection provides vital context to the issue of ‘cripping up’, currently at the top of the news agenda. This issue is creating much debate, with recent high-profile and controversial casting decisions fueling it. This includes Bryan Cranston’s current portrayal of a wheelchair-user in his new film The Upside, and non-disabled actor Charlie Heaton’s lead role in the BBC’s remake of The Elephant Man.  

Film and television needs to be more inclusive

Disabled Britain on Film launches in parallel to a renewed call for the film and television industries to be more inclusive on and off screen. The industry needs to create more opportunities for disabled actors to be considered for a broader range of roles. In turn, this will embrace more meaningful and authentic casting across the board.

This is as BFI Diversity Standards, which provides filmmakers with a framework to improve representation in front and behind the camera, are gradually being adopted by the wider industry.

Left to right top: Disabled (1967), A Day in the Life of Kevin Donnellon (1972), The Smallest Woman in the World (1972), Ian Dury (1983) – Left to right bottom: The End (2011), The Contact (1963), Cry of the Crippled Children (1921), Resistance (2008)

Drawn from films held by the BFI National Archive, in association with Regional and National Archive partners from across the UK, the Disabled Britain on Film collection also includes titles from leading UK charities such as Scope, Leonard Cheshire and Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).

Spanning documentaries, news reports, charity appeals, home movies and works of fiction, the collection features appearances by leading figures in the history of disabled Britain from all walks of life. It includes:

  • pioneering rights campaigner Paul Hunt;
  • Minister for the Disabled Alf Morris MP;
  • Blockheads lead singer Ian Dury;
  • actor/writer Mat Fraser;
  • and artist/activist Liz Crow.

It also showcases films by leading filmmakers David Lean, Anthony Asquith, Jack Cardiff and support from a host of famous faces including, Sean Connery, Charles Laughton, Sylvia Syms, Flora Robson, John Mills and Frank Sidebottom.

Showcasing the history of disability

There are some genuinely surprising and rare films, including the late John Hurt playing a disabled teenager being welcomed into a youth club in The Contact (1963). Produced in connection with Scope and made two decades before he played John Merrick in David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man (1980), The Contact is a remarkably forward-looking attempt to show the need for inclusion of disabled young people in mainstream society.

Many of the films in the collection are anchored through a well-meaning and sometimes patrician narrator. But some of the most compelling moments are when disabled people speak for themselves.

Young Kevin Donnellan discusses his aspirations in A Day in the Life of Kevin Donnellon (1972). Viewers warm to Joyce Carpenter’s infectious positivity in The Smallest Woman in the World (1972). Blind Farmer (1978) features Staffordshire farmer Blake Brown and his story of hard work and determination to continue doing the job he loves.

The empowering story of Martin Sharp, Britain’s First Disabled Racing Driver (1980) makes an interesting parallel with the experience of teen racing driver Billy Monger. He was recently honoured at BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and has returned to F3 racing less than a year after the accident which left him a double-leg amputee.

The history of disabled people in Britain has been one of social exclusion and segregation regularly being patronised, pitied and overlooked, or people speaking on your behalf. In the early 20th Century, many were consigned to an institutional life of incarceration, becoming what one disabled academic dubbed ‘the socially dead’.

A post-war charitable response to disability and the development of state-led care in the community in the 1980s eventually gave rise to the struggle for civil rights. Led by disabled activists and the famous rallying cry ‘nothing about us, without us’, this new collection provides positive stories where disabled people themselves are involved in the struggle for choice and control to live independent lives as well as a forward-thinking approach to what representation might look like in the future.

The future of disability on film and TV

Connecting the past to the present and possibilities for the future, Disabled Britain on Film also showcases the latest chapter in the story of deaf and disability-led filmmaking, with a flourishing of new screen work produced by an exciting array of filmmakers, visual artists, choreographers, dancers and theatre practitioners, who are insisting that their own images and voices be seen and heard.

Challenging and upending established frameworks of representation and storytelling, these contemporary films include works by artist-activist Liz Crow, (Resistance (2008), Nectar (2005) 21 Things to Remember (2003)) and filmmakers Ted Evans, (Retreat (2013), The End (2011)) and Charlie Swinbourne, (The Kiss (2014), Hands Solo (2009)).

On the significance of the BFI’s new collection, David Proud, actor, writer, producer and author of The Art of Disability said:

“From the fictional non-disabled depictions to archive footage, all have a place in the wonderful tapestry of disability history. We cannot truly understand where are heading without being able to look at where we came from.

Disability does not discriminate it can affect anyone anytime, it is so broad it is really hard to nail down what Disability Culture is. By curating these films together under this banner we can begin to explore what we mean by the term ‘disabled’.”

It is also important to understand that the tone and use of language in many of the archive titles reflect less enlightened times, and the historic context of when they were made which is now understood by modern audiences to be outdated.

This context is reflected on BFI Player and these titles are included for their historical significance, and as part of an ongoing discourse about what we can learn from the past to inform the future. A complementary BFI Mediatheque film and television collection is available to view in venue at BFI Southbank.


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