Channel 4’s prank show I’m Spazticus has always divided opinion, but its disabled cast take great pleasure in making members of the public squirm. The newest member is Martin Dougan – the former carpenter born with cerebral palsy was talent-spotted by Channel 4 and helped to front their coverage of last year’s Paralympics. This year they welcome him back to join the controversial comedy as they launch their assault on a new clutch of unsuspecting passers-by.
Ahead of the new series, RadioTimes.com caught up with Martin to hear all about missing his newborn’s first few days to pursue his presenting dreams and the thrill of making someone feel awkward…
So, Martin for the sake of the uninitiated, can you explain how you wound up being a star of the television?
I got talent spotted – I went to a competition to become the next Channel 4 presenter. My brother phoned me up one day and said the Paralympics show are advertising for new people to present. At that time my fiancé was pretty heavily pregnant and I said no, I’m not going to do it. But I ended up making a three-minute video that we had to submit and they asked me to go on a five-day bootcamp. The only problem was, on the day I had to go, my baby girl was born at six in the morning and I was on a train at 12 o’clock that afternoon. I went – my fiancé wasn’t going to let me waste that opportunity and plus I think she was still high on morphine at the time so she allowed it to happen.
You didn’t see your newborn for five whole days? That’s dedication…
What I did was I kept it a secret through the whole five-day bootcamp and didn’t tell anybody until we had to do a three minute piece to camera on why we should be the next Paralympics presenter. Basically I just made them feel guilty and said I should be the next Paralympics presenter because I’ve missed the first five days of my baby daughter coming out into the world. “I think it’s really selfish that you asked me to come here, don’t feel guilty but I’d really like to become the next Paralympic presenter.” I think that’s how I got the job!
So what made you want to be part of I’m Spazticus?
I saw the first episode go out [last summer] and I thought, “This is absolutely amazing,” because I’ve been around a lot of disabled people in my time and it’s reminiscent of the jokes we’ve always told to each other. What people don’t know is people who are disabled, they always laugh at themselves first. Disability isn’t something we keep a secret – it’s something we’ve always used to an advantage as a coping mechanism. And we always talk about people’s perception of us when we’re out together – we’re always talking about what people see. I’ve been out sometimes with females who are in wheelchairs and you always get someone coming up to me, going, “Is that your girlfriend?” And you go, right, so what’s made you make that connection? Is that because she’s in a wheelchair and I’m in a wheelchair and you think we’re going to make lots of wheelchair babies? Would you go up to anyone else and ask them if that’s their girlfriend? That could be my sister but you assume it’s my girlfriend because the two of us are in wheelchairs. So finally I’m Spazticus was something that was really challenging that and showing people that we do understand perceptions. Not everyone thinks that way but you do get the minority who come out and say those things.
Is it nice to have an outlet for your opinions?
It is. I did the Paralympics and it was great from a sporting point of view to show people what disabled athletes can achieve. For me that was brilliant because the British public showed they were ready for that. We all know Usain Bolt and we all know Jonny Peacock, the Paralympic sprinter, but these guys are special. No one else can run 100m in under 10 seconds. They are superhuman but no one else can affiliate with them unless you can run that fast. I think what [I’m Spazticus] is doing is it’s taking disability from a comedy aspect and really showing it in another light – that’s got to be done as well.
So you’re showing the real-life side to disability, rather than its place in a giant sporting venue?
I think I’m Spazticus is going to be quite controversial in the fact it’s showing people’s faults. It’s not necessarily showing people the goodness, it’s showing people the bad side of disability in a way and flipping it on it’s head. I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction. Everybody’s got their own personal reasons for being a cast member in I’m Spazticus – everybody sees it differently. For me, personally, that’s what it was about – showing people a different side.
The show received some harsh criticism when it was first aired last year – were you worried about joining something that had experienced that backlash?
I’m not because when I signed up to I’m Spazticus, I knew what I was in for. If disabled people and people who are not disabled really want to embrace disability, you’ve got to take the bad with the good and that’s the reason I wanted to do it – I wanted to show that it’s alright to. You’re not laughing at disabled people in I’m Spazticus, either. People seem to think it’s taking the mickey out of disabled people. It isn’t. Really, we’re taking the mickey out of society and that’s what the show’s all about. I just want to make that case – obviously I can understand people getting offended. I can understand that side of it if you’ve got a child that’s disabled and you don’t think it’s funny then fine – fair enough. We’re not taking the mickey out of disabled people, we’re just pinpointing the elements of society that disabled people have had to come up against.
Does I’m Spazticus appeal to your sense of humour?
There’s nohing better than making someone feel really awkward. When I met the exec, we knew it was going to be something that was going to match. I knew it was a show that would suit me fine because I just love that reaction from people when I say something that’s really bad.
How would you describe a typical reaction to one of your pranks?
The reaction would be the way you would expect. The open mouth, not knowing what to say next. That whole look in someone’s face – they go, “Oh god, what the hell’s happening here?” I love the reaction because it’s a purely instinctive reaction. There’s no hiding behind anything and you really see people for who they are.
What’s your favourite prank you’ve played during the series?
There are quite a few but one of the ones I thought was great was when we tried to get someone to imitate cerebral palsy. The fact that the person did it – I cannot believe I convinced someone to imitate a disability and I had them dancing around in circles and stuff. It was amazing. If I can convince someone to do that, I can convince someone to do anything.
Well, you certainly had a baptism of fire presenting the Paralympics – do you have a favourite moment?
Being a presenter for the Paralympics was massive because it’s kind of like getting the golden ticket – that’s the only way I can describe it. We step into this place in the greatest sporting event in the world with the greatest athletes and I had this pass to roam in and out of any building that I wanted. And you don’t have to pay for food, you don’t have to pay for drink.
So… the freebies were the best bit?
Well, yeah – that’s what I’m saying. It was unbelievable. I was just a carpenter before and then all of a sudden I’m thrust into this massive sporting event which is breaking records, not only for sport but for TV. I felt as though I was living someone else’s life. From a sporting point of view, the biggest moment for me was when Jonny Peacock won the 100m and then Dave Weir obviously winning gold and Hannah Cockroft. There was a day on the track where Great Britain basically smashed it and for me that was the greatest day the Paralympics has ever had. It was quite emotional for myself because I’d played basketball in the background – I’d played for Scotland. I just think that to see 80,000 people in a stadium watching these guys do what they do – and I’ve known them for a long time – it was really good. I wasn’t just happy for me but I was happy for them as well.
Since then we’ve seen one of the stars of the Paralympics, Oscar Pistorius, has faced a murder charge – how do you think that’s affected the sport?
I’m not going to talk about anything that’s happened to him personally but, with Oscar – he was Mr Paralympics but I don’t think it’s affected anything because you’ve got Jonny Peacock, you’ve got [Alan] Oliveira from Brazil. These guys are smashing records left, right and centre. You’ve got Hannah Cockroft, you’ve got loads of other athletes like Dave Weir. You’ve got team sport – wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby – they’ve all got their own superstars and they are superstars in their own right so I don’t think it’s done anything to dent the Paralympics. I think Paralympics will go on without one individual. And in London 2012 it wasn’t one person who was getting spoken about in the headlines – it was the Paralympics itself. London really did produce the greatest Paralympic Games ever. Arguably one of the greatest Olympic Games ever as well.