A new TV drama about the life of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, has run into trouble because the actor portraying Merrick is not disabled; indeed, it’s been compared to the practice of white actors blacking up. The real-life Elephant Man probably had Proteus syndrome, a rare condition that affects fewer than one in a million people, but nobody appears to be suggesting that they need to cast a Proteus sufferer; as far as I can tell, all that matters is that the performer - unlike the actor Charlie Heaton, the one who’s actually got the gig - has some sort of disability.
I’m a little uneasy with this, mainly because it appears to set up a rigid binary divide, disabled actors on one side, non-disabled on the other, and all parts are to be allotted accordingly. That said, the actor Adam Pearson, who has called the casting of Heaton “cripping-up”, has neurofibromatosis, which was Merrick’s assumed diagnosis until the mid-1980s, so maybe he has more of a right to it than, say, an actor with Down syndrome, or a wheelchair user; although that would imply some sort of hierarchy of disabilities. And the alternative to that is a situation where characters such as Quasimodo, Long John Silver and Tiresias would be off-limits to the non-disabled, but the one-legged Silver might be played by someone with the standard complement of limbs, but deaf, or epileptic, or... take your pick.
I do get it - opportunities for actors with disabilities are already limited, so it looks like a kick in the teeth to make an able-bodied actor pretend. And, yes, there’s an equivalent situation for ethnic minorities (more of that later). But we may be getting to a situation where political sensitivity leaves some roles essentially unplayable, leaving important stories forever untold. At least Merrick’s tale has already been told, and superbly, which raises another question, of why film and TV seem insistent on remaking things less well. I’m not sure whether John Hurt’s portrayal of Merrick should now be seen as unacceptable, the disabled cousin to Olivier’s Othello, but it moved me to tears the first time I saw it and it does the same today. What do you think?
PS: In Twitterland, Archie Valparaiso brings up this comedic classic and I wonder whether it too would now be verboten: