I’m Spazticus – the title itself makes you wince, but that’s obviously the idea. Former Hollyoaks actor Peter Mitchell, who is just one of the disabled cast featuring in Channel 4’s controversially-named new hidden camera comedy show, certainly has a glint in his eye as I scrabble around trying to find the right way to approach it.
Things aren’t made easier when I go to slide my bag under the table and bang his leg and the side of his wheelchair. There’s a tense moment in my head – would that hurt? I’m about to apologise, but he beats me to it, breaking into a broad smile and says, “What are you doing, trying to knock me over?” before shaking his head and laughing off my concern.
Exploiting this kind of awkwardness is key to I’m Spazticus’s premise. Performed by a cast of disabled actors with disabled writers behind the scenes, the show features Peter and his co-stars setting up various pranks to trap an unsuspecting public.
Peter’s clearly pleased with the results, full of talk about how refreshing it is to see blind people, amputees and cerebral palsy sufferers a chance to something other than the tired TV sob story. But wasn’t he nervous about being exploited for the sake of a crass gag?
“When I was told about the concept, I thought it was brilliant,” he explains. “But then I heard the title and I was like ‘Oh, no, no, no, no’. I wanted to know: are people going to be laughing at us or with us? Because that’s a completely different ball game.
“The title by itself may shock and offend people, but once you turn on you will see that it’s humour. First and foremost it’s a comedy, and I think people will laugh because it’s essentially us having a wee bit of fun with the public,” he grins.
A wheelchair user for 10 years, the 28-year-old actor from Northern Ireland is in as good a position as any to make a judgment, although this kind of work was, he admits, the last thing he expected to have ended up in.
When Peter was 18, football was the only thing on his mind – having signed a contract with Leeds United, he was aiming for the sporting big time. A car accident in 2002 abruptly denied him that footballing glory, leaving him in a wheelchair for life.
“At the time, there were no positives whatsoever to take from my accident. I had a good career – not many people get to do their hobby for a life… most young lads dream of being a footballer, and I had that opportunity. So when I was in that crash, not only did I end up in a wheelchair, I lost my career.”
When Channel 4 came looking for paraplegic actors at his wheelchair basketball club four years later, it gave him something else to push for. “I thought I had nothing to lose – I hadn’t worked since my accident. I thought I’d love to be an actor – we all grow up watching TV, why not be on it?”
He got the part in Channel 4’s mockumentary drama Cast Offs; a part in Hollyoaks and various other jobs followed. Now I’m Spazticus has given him the chance to draw random people on the street into the act. It’s a different kind of show to what he’s used to, but Peter loved the challenge of improvising on the fly.
“It’s a poor choice of words, I’m in a wheelchair, but I really have to think on my toes! I don’t know how they’re going to react, I don’t know what they’re going to say, and obviously because it’s all hidden cameras they don’t know they’re on TV. So I’m trying my best to keep them involved and make it funny.”
The first time we’re introduced to Peter, he’s hanging from a parachute in a tree – his story is he’s part of a wheelchair skydiving display that has gone badly wrong. He admits this kind of sketch is not exactly taken from personal experience, but he can draw on his fair share of awkward public encounters when he’s acting.
“Whenever I park in a disabled spot,” he says, “people always shoot me a look before I get out. If I had a pound for every dirty look I got for parking my Jeep in a wheelchair space, I would be a multi-millionaire now. It’s unbelievable – that’s an everyday occurrence for me.”
However, having the Paralympics in London, he says, is going to do wonders for people’s ideas about disability: “Jaws will be dropping up and down the UK, because these guys are proper athletes. People are going to go ‘How can they do that?’”
Jaws will drop during I’m Spazticus too, although perhaps for different reasons. But as long as it proves that disabled actors can be as versatile as any other actors on TV, Peter will be satisfied.
“I hate the word disabled, I hate it. To disable something means to turn something off, and as you can see from the show we’re far from turned off. We’re far from broken.”
I’m Spazticus, Sunday 19 August, 10.10pm, is part of C4’s Funny Fortnight. Follow @Comedyon4 for all the latest information about the season