When a car crash ended what promised to be a successful career as a professional footballer, Peter Mitchell could be forgiven for thinking his shot at stardom had gone off target. But, as Annie Makoff discovers, as one door closed, another flew wide open.
In all sorts of ways, Peter Mitchell challenges the conventional wisdom about being disabled. He’s young, handsome and he’s landed a major role in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks. But for those who know better, it was the very fact that he is disabled that opened up the world of acting to him.
Having boldly gone where no commissioning editors had gone before, buying and developing Cast Offs – a series based on six disabled characters washed up on an island –producers had to set about finding disabled actors to fill the roles.
And from the outset, Peter was convinced that one of them had his name on it.
“It was like a calling for me,” he says, “I used to play wheelchair basketball and when my club received an email from Channel 4 who were looking for a paraplegic man to play Dan in Cast Offs, I knew it was meant to be me.”
Although Cast Offs was fictional, Peter played himself through his character, Dan. Both had been involved in serious accidents that had left them paraplegic, and both felt inexplicably “lost” in their respective worlds.
“If anyone experiences what Dan and I went through, then you do feel like that. You lose your confidence,” he explains.
Peter’s accident happened as he was starting what he hoped would be a successful football career with Leeds United. The car he was travelling in on the way to a match, hit the side of the road, veered into a hedge and turned over with Peter stuck in the backseat.
“I remember everything about that day. I can see it now,” he recalls. “My mates kicked in the windows of the car and were shouting ‘Mitch, are you OK?’ I couldn’t even let them know, I was finding it hard to breathe and I couldn’t talk. I remember lying there thinking ‘this is it, this is the summation of my life.’”
Peter was in hospital for a total of only ten weeks, even though doctors insisted he wouldn’t be out for Christmas due to the extent of his injuries. Determined to get home for the sake of his family, he told his physiotherapist not to treat him like a normal patient, but to push him as hard as they could.
“It’s always worst for those closest to you because they don’t know how you feel” he says. “My family were obviously worried and my mum especially was distraught. She drove a round trip of 160 miles every day to visit me, so I knew I had to get better as quickly as possible.”
Yet in retrospect, the horrific accident can perhaps be seen as a blessing in disguise. Although Peter’s football career was ruined and he had completely lost the ability to walk, the opportunities that acting has given him since, have changed his world forever.
The young actor, who has starred in a feature film, The Best Years, made in 2010 and currently in post production, had never acted before Cast Offs. By his own admission, he had never even been in a school play, let alone had a major role in a series that challenged people’s perceptions of disability.
It was through Cast Offs that the Hollyoaks crew first noticed Peter. A few months after filming and following various appearances in episodes of BBC1’s Doctors, he was invited to a meeting with the Hollyoaks team who wanted to discuss a character with him.
“I thought I’d do the six weeks filming with Cast Offs and it would be an amazing experience and that would be it,” he says. “When I was told about Hollyoaks I kept saying ‘wow, are you serious?’ There wasn’t even an audition, they just wanted to see if I could play the character they had in mind. I obviously ticked the right boxes because here I am. I keep pinching myself, it’s unbelievable.”
The 26-year-old quickly found out that his character, Pete Hamill, would not play up to the stereotype of disabled characters: Pete would not have a “victim mentality”.
At that point, the Hollyoaks family had little idea about Hamill’s history. So assuming his character would be a relatively minor addition to the popular soap, it came as a huge (but nevertheless pleasant) shock when, shortly prior to filming for the first time, Peter discovered that his character would be the new head teacher at Hollyoaks High and be at the epicentre of a huge storyline.
“I was ecstatic joining Hollyoaks, but I had no idea Pete would be such a big part,” he says, the delight still evident in his voice. “I was shaking reading the scripts for the first time, I knew it was going to be good TV.”
Head teacher Hamill joins the drama already knowing one of the soap’s most notorious characters. Regular viewers of Hollyoaks will know that bad boy Brendan Brady (played by Emmet Scanlan) has been involved with drugs, robbery and other dodgy dealings.
The appearance of Pete, Brendan’s childhood friend, brings out a new side to the shady character, especially because the new head teacher has a score to settle.
Could it be that Brendan has finally met his match?
Peter remains tight lipped as to how the story develops between the two, although he does admit that there is some “dark history”, which will become apparent over time.
“Pete and Brendan were old friends at school,” Peter hints. “All I’m saying is that Pete is the last person Brendan wants to turn up at Hollyoaks Village. You’re getting nothing else out of me!”
As with most soaps that are screened five days a week, filming is six weeks ahead and at least six different film crews are used to shoot several scenes a day.
“A lot of people don’t realise the amount of work that goes into it,” says Peter, who speaks of a time recently when he had seven scenes and seven costume changes to do in one day.
There is no time to brush up on lines beforehand, even though scenes are often filmed out of sequence and from different episodes.
Initially, Peter’s main concern about starting at Hollyoaks was remembering his lines. When he first joined the set, he was presented with 12 different scripts that needed to be learnt prior to filming.
As a typical day on set runs from quarter to eight in the morning until nine at night with only the evening for reading through the scripts, the task seemed initially impossible.
“There is no way you can learn 12 scripts, so I didn’t,” he says cheekily. “Instead, I got familiar with the storyline of each of the 12 episodes and the night before we were filming particular scenes, I learnt by heart the ones we were working on the next day. It’s what everyone does, especially if you are on TV every day.”
Even so, the prospect of learning several disjointed scenes the night before, especially after a long day, still seems daunting to the average person. Yet Peter, who has adjusted remarkably quickly to the fast-paced culture, is rather blasé about it. “Your brain just gets used to it,” he says matter-of-factly.
Peter speaks in glowing terms about his colleagues. His initial “new boy” fears quickly dissolved when he was welcomed with open arms by the entire Hollyoaks family, from the cast and crew, to the security guards and receptionists.
Although Peter isn’t the first disabled star of Hollyoaks – wheelchair-user Kelly-Marie Stewart played Hayley Ramsey in 2009/10 – he hopes that his presence in mainstream television will have a positive effect on society’s perceptions of the disabled community.
He explains: “One of the things I’m hoping is that Pete will change how people see those with disabilities. He has a great job as Head of a secondary school and he’s very confident. Just because he’s in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he’s a soft touch.”
According to the young actor, Hollyoaks has paved the way for “making TV real”, just as disabled actor, writer and friend Mat Fraser (Cast Offs) visualised. Because approximately 18 per cent of Britain’s population are disabled, Peter believes this should be reflected in a greater proportion of disabled actors on our screens.
“If a show has a disabled character, hire someone with a disability, not someone pretending to be disabled” he says. “For TV to become real we have to make it real.”
He adds: “People have to realise there is more to someone than their impairment. That’s how I want to be seen – my personality is a lot bigger than my disability.”