The BBC’s decision to hire able-bodied actor Charlie Heaton – who rose to fame as Jonathan Byers in Netflix’s acclaimed sci-fi fantasy Stranger Things – in the role of the “Elephant Man” has drawn criticism from a disabled charity who claim it’s a “missed opportunity” that reaffirms “a lack of diversity in the industry”.
Hot on the heels of similar criticism pointed at Disney’s decision to hire British actor and comedian Jack Whitehall – a straight actor – in a gay role, comes disabled charity Scope’s disappointment that an able-bodied actor has been given the role of the “Elephant Man” in an upcoming BBC drama series.
Charlie Heaton, the actor who rose to fame as Jonathan Byers in Netflix’s hit sci-fi fantasy Stranger Things, has been cast to play Joseph Merrick (famously embodied by John Hurt in David Lynch’s powerful film of 1980). But the decision to choose him over a disabled actor further underlines “a lack of diversity in the industry” which Scope’s Phil Talbot described as “nothing new”.
Merrick, who famously suffered from severe physical deformities, grew to fame in late 19th century London, firstly as part of a curiosity show billed as the Elephant Man and later as a subject of London Hospital’s Dr. Frederick Treves. The BBC’s new interpretation of his life story follows Lynch’s critically acclaimed film, a 1979 play by Bernard Pomerance, and a Broadway revival starring Bradley Cooper in 2014. Actors Mark Hamill and singer David Bowie have also played Merrick during their careers.
Scope said this was a missed opportunity. “Disabled actors still often face huge barriers to break in to the business, not only are the roles few and far between, but castings and locations are often not accessible. The creative industries should be embracing and celebrating difference and diversity, not ignoring it.”
Certainly, diversity is an issue we cannot ignore. And ensuring more opportunities for less-represented groups is an important part of the BBC’s responsibility as a publicly-funded broadcaster. But so is its responsibility to make TV (and film) that audiences can respond to in a positive way – both emotionally and intellectually. Joseph Merrick presents a tough role to play – and some of those who have played him have had to deliver career-defining performances to do so – so we’ve got to assume the BBC has, through its audition process, got the best actor – currently available and willing – for the job.
But the broadcaster sought to alleviate some fears when it said in response to Scope’s criticism: “The Elephant Man is an iconic drama that has had an important role to play in highlighting changing attitudes to disability and we are currently in the process of casting disabled actors in a variety of key roles.”
It is right that prominent roles for under-represented or minority groups get the sort of attention that can remove stigma, mitigate a sense of “otherness” while celebrating difference, and positively impact community togetherness and societal wellbeing. But it’s also unnecessary to offer blanket criticism to production companies who don’t cast a gay man in a gay role or a disabled actor in a disabled role because that only emphasises a sense of “otherness” instead of celebrating our unique qualities as individuals regardless of what differentiates us.