Monday, August 20, 2012

Nine Days To Their Biggest Challenge

I’d never heard of the Paralympics until 1991.

Three years earlier, in Seoul, our able-bodied athletes won just five gold medals. In that same month our disabled athletes broke 18 world records, and brought home 182 medals, including 64 golds.

While Steve Redgrave, Linford Christie, Adrian Moorhouse, Colin Whitbread and Fatima Whitbread became household names, the public scarcely noticed the achievements of their disabled colleagues. Neither did I.

Then in 1991, while I was producing Challenge Anneka for the BBC, we received a call from the British Paralympic Association asking for help.
Despite the Seoul success, they were desperate for funds to take the team to Barcelona the following year.

Our production team was forever fending off requests from good causes – there was no National Lottery at that time – and my first instinct was to say no. We couldn’t make money for charities, only things, and they needed hard cash. My ignorance must have been transparent. So, probably, was my prejudice: at the back of my mind was a niggling question of just how seriously we should take the whole Paralympic contest. Wasn’t this some manufactured alternative event best suited for the dark hours of Channel 4, not BBC1 primetime? Was it really sport? It soon became clear that what they needed was a public education campaign. Starting with me.

I also think that, like many people, I didn't know how to communicate properly with disabled people:  political correctness creates paranoia and I guess I was scared of committing some terrible faux pas.  This was despite my Mum having devoted decades of her life to working with people with disabilities. She taught thousands of them creative skills; she single-handedly took busloads on holiday, lugging wheelchairs up hotel staircases; later she ran a national charity for teachers of the disabled. Throughout her life, Mum has refused to look at what people can’t do, only what they can. It means nothing to her how many limbs a person carries, or whether they can see – she handles everyone the same say. She would have made a wonderful Paralympic coach.

Eventually the Challenge team came up with the idea of a television commercial about our Paralympic athletes. We gave ourselves (or, rather, Anneka, for that was the format of the show) just 36 hours to create it and get it on air.

We threw the communications problem at one of London’s top advertising agencies and they soon spotted the dilemma: the public sees disabilities first and achievements second. We use a language of negatives towards the disabled world, with phrases like “wheelchair bound” when we mean “wheelchair using”. Our commercial needed to turn this perception around.

Even though it was created in a few hours, their script was inspirational: over Handel’s stirring anthem Zadok The Priest, we would show close-ups of swimmers, runners, and other athletes – but without seeing their disabilities at all. We would reel off their extraordinary sporting success in Seoul. Then, as the music swelled, the camera would pan down to reveal their bodies, with the simple voiceover: “Next year in Barcelona we’re once again going to prove that our disabilities don’t get in the way of our abilities.”

We filmed at Crystal Palace in the freezing cold. That’s where I saw what these incredible athletes can do. People lacking only limbs or sight, but with the incredible dedication, stamina and skill of true Olympians. We filmed them again and again from every angle, till they nearly dropped from exhaustion.

The project was fraught with problems. At the 11th hour, the broadcasting authorities said we couldn’t use Zadok The Priest because religious text is banned from commercials. So overnight Howard Blake, who composed The Snowman, wrote a Handel parody and we found a choir and orchestra to record it.

We almost missed the deadline altogether: Anneka’s buggy broke down on the way to ITV and she had to hail a cab, arriving with seconds to spare. But when our advert transmitted, I’d like to think that a few million people had learnt a little more about these incredible, talented athletes. As hopefully the whole world will see in just nine days’ time.

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