Story at a glance

  • In BBC America's "CripTales," six disabled performers read monologues also directed and written by disabled people.
  • Creator Mat Fraser said "things could be a lot better" for representation but hopes the series will help on that front.

For decades, film and TV ostensibly about disabled people’s stories has predominantly been written and performed by non-disabled people. Mat Fraser hopes his new BBC America series “CripTales” can help change that, on both sides of the camera.

Fraser is a British actor, musician and writer. He also has thalidomide-induced phocomelia, a condition that causes disfigurement of limbs.

In the first of the six monologues that comprise the series, he discusses how this affects auditions for him. “Like most actors, I can’t control getting the part, just the acting. But unlike most actors, not getting the part could have nothing to do with my acting and everything to do with these,” he says, as the camera pans to his arms with a mock-dramatic sting.

However, as the monologue continues, Fraser doesn't lament his disability, explicitly saying "I love my body; it's the only one I've got."

Instead, he airs his frustration with casting directors who patronize him or worse, ask him to read for a part with a completely different disability ("That's mimicry," he scoffs.)

Fraser told Changing America the series came about following similar productions focused on the experience of gay men, women and Black people through the past several decades of British history. BBC Studios executive director Debbie Christie approached him, he said, to create a show “with the same kind of ethos that would sort of show… highlights of the disability experience over the past 50 years.”

Notably, all the monologues are not only written and performed by disabled people, they are directed by disabled directors as well. Fraser said he made this decision because “I wanted this to be a wholly disabled experience.”

Another reason it was important to include disabled people, however, was simply because of how difficult it can be for disabled directors in particular to get a foot in the door in an inaccessible industry.

“We haven’t exactly been welcomed by the industry [and] for disabled directors it’s been the hardest shlep of all,” he said.

While Fraser’s own monologue is about performing as a disabled person, the topics vary widely. In another, set in 1968, Sue (Ruth Madeley) discusses becoming pregnant after a sexual encounter and considering an abortion. In another, a wheelchair user (Carly Houston) begins to develop feelings for her neighbor Keira but must contend with a caregiver who does not approve of the relationship. Conveying that disabled people have sex lives and sexual desires was an essential part of the project, he told Changing America.

“It’s the stuff of life, it’s just the stuff of life. However you want to have it, you can have it on paper, you can have it underwater, but some kind of sexual desire is part of the human condition,” he said. Media portrayals of disabled people, he noted, typically depict them as “asexual or infantilized sexually” when “nothing could be further from the truth.”

Fraser also noted that the majority of the talent involved are women, a demographic that is frequently underrepresented in depictions of disability.

“It was really important to me that we had majority women on this,” he told Changing America. “I’m not going to pat myself on the shoulder, I’m just going to say ‘bloody right’.”

While most of Fraser’s work has been in British productions, he’s also appeared on FX’s “American Horror Story” in its fourth season. Making art about disability is “very similar” in the U.S. and the U.K., he said, but “I think perhaps British portrayal of disabled characters in dramas is treated slightly ahead of the rest of the world.” Fraser noted that BBC policy on portrayals of disability calls on producers to “always use disabled actors for disabled roles.”

“I think things are generally much better” compared to past decades, Fraser said. “They could be really a lot better but ‘CripTales’ is hopefully going to help.”

Not that his time working on American productions has been without its benefits either. “There’s something about being in an American drama that really impresses British audiences,” he said.

“CripTales” is scheduled to premier on Oct. 1 on BBC America.

Published on Sep 25, 2020