How a Tweet spawned a group of disabled actors to create their own Christmas Ad...

Having been at the live launch of a Christmas ad on ITV News, I had to backtrack and find out how it all started. Which I did - and it started with a Tweet.

By Manchester's Finest | 16 December 2019

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A Tweet from actor Melissa Johns (Corrie and a lot of other roles) bemoaning the fact that the big budget, glossy Christmas ads had no disabled actors.

That prompted a simple reply from Simon Naylor of 53two Theatre and Arts: ‘Let’s make one!?’

Of course, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Sparks, John Lewis, all famously take a year to make their Christmas ads. A year which eats up a monstrous budget.

This idea had three weeks and a fifty quid budget leading up to the launch date of December 7th. Easy. The ad was scripted, storyboarded and then shot in a day, with editing taking up a further three days.

On the 7th., the cast, crew and friends assembled at 53two Studios, accompanied by ITV News roving reporter Mel Barham and the outside broadcast crew. It was, being the launch, the first time that the cast had seen the finished ad and it can confidently be written that they were all delighted with the result.

So, when the party was over, I had a long chat with Melissa Johns about her Tweet, the project and thoughts on inclusion – or lack of it – of disabled actors in TV and drama productions generally.

Melissa said, “I was getting more and more frustrated watching these glossy ads. The arts and media have a responsibility to change minds. All in all, there are hundreds of characters in these ads and none of them are disabled.

They should reflect society, real life, not just at Christmas but all year round. How can they do that when representation of large parts of the population are missing?”

So, let’s step back again to when Melissa’s acting career really took off. After attending East 15 Acting School in London, she was invited to attend a workshop organised by Cherylee Houston (Izzy in Corrie) for disabled drama school graduates.

This was, as Melissa said, “Undoing years of being told ‘this industry is not for you.’” A year later Melissa was herself cast in Corrie. But really that was only the beginning of the story, because with like minds, Melissa and Cherylee wanted to push things further and, with other colleagues, launched Triple C – Creative Confidence Collective – a collective of disabled and non-disabled creatives.

In the ensuing years Triple C have launched the Disabled Actors Networking Community and Bee Vocal Mental Health Choir, recently featured on Manchester’s Finest.

“We just set out to break down barriers,” Melissa said. “and not just on the stage or telly. But those are powerful mediums of course and we want to counteract a perhaps unconscious bias that business generally may have, against employing disabled people. It’s about potential jobs and careers for disabled people.”

Now Triple C is growing as a disabled led arts organisation, reaching out in many directions.

“When we decided to make a Christmas ad we didn’t have a product to sell. We didn’t want to make an ad about disability. We just wanted to make a Christmas ad about real life. With just a simple message: give someone who may need it a little of your time at Christmas.”