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8 January 2010

Photo of a man wearing a red fez. He's got sunglasses on too. It is Andy Serkis's face. 104 FIlms

Andy Serkis wears dark glasses and a fez in his portrayal of Ian Dury for the biopic 'Sex and drugs and rock and roll'. Photo: 104 Films

Image: 104 FIlms

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll is the 2009 film of the Ian Dury story starring Andy Serkis in the role of the punk legend.

Like many in the disability community I was initially angry they didn't cast a disabled actor in the lead role. We've got used to saying that disabled people have to be played by disabled actors.

But I got to wondering what would have been topmost priority in Ian Dury's mind? Would he be turning in his grave, or would he have sanctioned using a known non-disabled actor who would give the role a bigger public profile?

Ian Dury was a politicised crip. He was open and proud of his disability at a time when no-one in the public eye would have considered setting their disability cards on the table. He often talked about himself in a mocking, confrontational way as a 'raspberry' - a piece of cockney rhyming slang meaning 'raspberry ripple' for cripple.

Ian Dury was an inspiration for the disability community - but he wasn't a regular on the disability circuit because he was too big a name. The persona he created was alluring, dangerous and sexy, with his razor blade earrings, drainpipes, pointy side-burns and brothel creepers.

I first saw him perform at the Streatham Odeon in 1979. A few of us were waiting at the back of the queue - realising as each minute went by that it was unlikely we'd get tickets - when suddenly Ian Dury happened to walk past. A feisty young woman-friend grabbed his eye, and before you could say Billericay Dicky he'd ushered us in, gratis, with his Cheshire cat smile - and we even got to see him briefly backstage after the show.

I didn't think of Ian Dury then as 'a disabled performer.' He created a persona much stronger than that. In fact it wasn't until 1981 that I realised he was a disabled person. It was when he released the song Spasticus Autisticus when asked to make a contribution to The International Year of the Disabled. The committee, who thought it was a good idea to ask Dury to write a song, must have cursed themselves something rotten.

The single was banned by the BBC - which was brilliant - because it made you want to listen to the words. It was only when I cottoned on to the line “I widdle when I piddle, cos my middle is a riddle” that it dawned on me that here was someone saying something radical about disability. At the time people hadn't heard those kind of sentiments associated with disability. The song was a cry of anger - but expressed only as Ian Dury could have expressed it - with humour and charm.

I think Ian Dury would have been pretty pissed off not have a disabled actor cast in his role. But in practical terms, finding someone with polio to play the part would be extremely difficult. And would casting a known, talented disabled actor like Mat Fraser for example - someone with a completely different impairment - have been any different from casting a non-disabled actor? Cripping up isn't quite the same as Blacking up. There are more complex questions about physique and physicality, related to impairment that come into play.

It is more important to have someone who will capture Ian Dury as the legend he was, rather than choose someone with his impairment, for the principle of it. Personally, I think Garry Robson would have done a very good job. He's got the physicality and the persona. But he wouldn't have stood a chance getting cast for a big budget film like "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll".

The point is that there is still a glass ceiling for disabled performers. No matter how high they climb they still don't get cast because of discriminatory attitudes.

Allan Sutherland recently told me a story about Ewan Marshal. In 2004 the BBC commissioned Marshal to make Every Time You Look At Me, starring Mat Fraser and Lisa Hammond. It didn't get massive ratings - but the BBC have another measure of recording the opinions of the people that did watch it. And it was a big hit with those who did see it.

However, at the subsequent meeting, a senior person at the BBC was asking Ewan for ideas. He started to propose another role for Mat and was told, "No, we've done Mat Fraser." If someone of Mat's charisma, talent and drive runs into that glass ceiling it is no surprise that aspiring disabled actors don't stand a chance.

Maybe we still have a need for the 'One in Eight' groups' 'Raspberry Ripple' awards ceremony, for good and bad portrayal of disabled people in the media. Ian Dury coined 'raspberry ripple' as an anthem. The question is, will Andy Serkis deserve one for playing him?

Whatever... I'm very excited about seeing the film. I hope to be eating my words when I do get to see it!

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll opens in London's West End on 8 January 2010

For more information about the man visit the Official Ian Dury website