A disabled actor has blasted the BBC for its offensive treatment of people with dwarfism, Paul Carter reports.
Actor Kiruna Stamell has told Disability Now that she feels demeaned by the BBC following a sketch which it broadcast during this year’s Comic Relief.
Stamell, who has appeared on BBC programmes several times and who will appear in a special of Life’s Too Short, wrote an open letter to the BBC to complain about the broadcast.
Her complaints stem from a sketch which ran throughout the evening featuring comedian Peter Kay, called Sit Down for Comic Relief. During the sketch, he was pulled around the country on a sofa on wheels, mainly by several people with dwarfism, along with a number of celebrities of 1980s light entertainment fame.
There was also a section where Radio 2 DJ Zoe Ball made reference to a ‘midget’.
Speaking to Disability Now, Stamell said that the programme had reduced people with restricted growth to ‘glorified prop use’.
She said: “To see over nine hours of footage, and yet during that whole time we were merely props as adults when the irony was that it was all about children and bullying as social issues … as soon as we’re adults we’re objects of ridicule and not connected to the children they claim to be trying to help.”
She also said that the jokes made had the potential to damage young children with dwarfism watching, who share the same representations of the condition as everyone else.
“We’re such a rare minority, except for our overwhelming ridiculing portrayal in the media, that people take from that the way they’re meant to see us because they’ve got no other experience.”
Stamell’s original letter, which is also on her website, criticises the BBC for using people with restricted growth in sketches which she says dehumanised and ridiculed people with dwarfism. It also says that she felt let down by the corporation.
The letter says: “Dear Comic Relief, you let me down tonight! Why?! Because I have dwarfism!”
It goes onto say: “Tonight, I saw a side of you that was shallow and ignorant. I saw offensive gags and skits that merely objectified and dehumanised people with dwarfism.”
A spokeswoman for Comic Relief said that the charity had no control over editorial output and that the responsibility lay with the BBC.
She said: “Comic Relief aims to raise as much money as possible to help vulnerable people here in the UK and in the world’s poorest countries. The night of television is a light hearted and entertaining programme which does not aim to offend.”
The spokeswoman added that enquiries about the broadcast should be directed to the BBC.
The BBC told Disability Now that the joke was not at the expense of people with restricted growth.
A spokesperson said: “Peter Kay’s Sit Down for Comic Relief sketch featured a raft of performers pulling Peter’s sofa including several actors of restricted growth, many of whom Peter has worked with before, alongside Brian Conley, Rustie Lee, Bernie Clifton, Yvette Fielding, Bob Carolgees, Adam Rickitt, Tom O’Connor, Freddie Flintoff and Helen Skelton to name but a few, and a host of Olympians including Nicola Adams and Sir Steve Redgrave, all of whom were there to emphasise Peter’s laziness.”
She added that the sketch depicted a team effort to help Peter out in his comic attempts to remain sitting down.
“The joke was always on Peter and never on any of the people who pulled him along. No offence was intended.”
Commenting on the BBC’s response, Stamell said that it didn’t address the midget gag or the other cumulative representations of the programme.
“The problem was that it was cumulative and there wasn’t enough balance. It just fell back on that age old gag of they’re funny because they look funny,” she said.
“It’s the social message that they fail to understand, that they’re suggesting dwarfs are inhuman, or below human. If Peter Kay had 11 black men pulling him along, what sort of message would that have sent out?”