I’M SPAZTICUS: Sunday 19th August, Channel 4, 10.10pm
“Someone once asked me how long I’d been a dwarf for..” says Max Laird when I ask him what the strangest thing a member of the public has ever said to him. “I was in shock!”
Across the table, Tim Gebbels and Peter Mitchell laugh along with their colleague and it’s impossible not to join in. They are just some of the cast of Channel 4’s new hidden camera prank show I’m Spazticus and they’ve all got stories to tell.
“One of my mates once asked me if I could walk far in my wheelchair!” says Peter, while Tim is constantly shocked by how little people think he’s capable of as a blind man. “People assume that standing up out of a chair is a major achievement,” he explains. “Some people think you simply can’t do anything if you’re blind. But if this show can make people think about these things then that’s all to the good”.
It’s been a long time since I’m Spazticus first appeared on our screens as a Channel Comedy Showcase back in 2005. Despite winning a Superfest International Disability Award, it wasn’t made into a full series, but the format has developed over the last few years and with their coverage of the Paralympics round the corner, Channel 4 obviously felt the time was right to take it off the shelf. Writer and director Jamie O’Leary explains that the show has developed a lot since it first appeared on the scene and is now worth a full series.
“The pilot was much more of a visual piece and not a character piece. Now we have a real ensemble cast,” he says. “First and foremost it’s a comedy. Disability is obviously a part of that but it’s just a smoke-screen to make the pranks work. But it’s just a laugh. Disability or not, if it’s not funny then it’s not going to work.”
It’s certainly quite funny, yet as I continue to chat away to the show’s stars I realise that every sketch actually has a point behind it. One of the best skits centres on a delivery man dropping off a package at a blind man’s house. It’s a stuffed Golden Retriever which was formerly the man’s guide dog, but when the box is opened, the blind man makes it clear that they’ve brought him the wrong animal and he doesn’t want it, leaving a perplexed delivery man on the doorstep scratching his head.
“That one was inspired by the old myth that blind people have guide dogs simply for companionship,” explains Tim. “I’ve got a guide dog because it’s a tool that stops me from walking into things! Not to stop me having lonely nights in with no mates. So I think we’ve got a licence to mix things up with these issues. But it’s been great fun making a comedy. A lot of disabled TV is very earnest and there’s a thin line between that and getting a bit righteous.”
Some of the skits are inspired from real life while others are simply cooked up for a laugh in a bid to see how stupid they can get. In one sketch, Peter Mitchell – an actor from Northern Ireland who was confined to a wheelchair after a serious accident – is hanging from a tree in what looks like a parachute jump gone wrong.
“Obviously that’s just a complete piss-take. I’ve never gone out on Saturday night and woken up on Sunday morning hanging from a tree!” he laughs. “But it’s funny because when we were filming you’d see people just pretending not to have seen you. You’re like ‘Come on dude! Give us a hand’. I had a script, but as soon as I started talking to people that went out of the window. You’ve really got to think on your feet – as it were!”
At one point Tim even manages to convince a member of the public that his guide dog understands them and gets them to crouch beside him and explain how to get to the station. “You almost in shock that they’re falling for it so you have to carry on!” says Laird. “It’s like are you really being this gullible?!”
Yet everyone who we see on screen has agreed to have their footage used, says the director. Producers even pulled a sketch filmed at an art college after members of the public who weren’t in on the joke called the police.
“We get immediate retrospective clearances. So you go up to them straight afterwards and tell them what the show is about. Lot’s of times they all talk to the guys afterwards and 95% of the time people are happy enough and react really well to it.”
Initial reviews have been excellent, but some people have reacted to the programme’s title. “You need to grab people’s attention,” says O’Leary. “..and it’s actually taken from an Ian Drury song ‘Spazticus Austisticus'”.
“It’s a very fine line but I’d be very surprised if people are offended,” adds Peter. “We’re as much putting ourselves out there and examining our own attitudes to own impairments, so it’s not us looking down on members of the public. Every sketch has a warm centre.”
Check out this I’m Spazticus video from 2008..