Mencap CEO Edel Harris: The casting of learning disabled actors in The Crown is “extraordinary”

Netflix's The Crown tells the story of the Queen's cousins Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon – and seeing actors with a learning disability on mainstream TV demonstrates how times have changed for the better, writes Edel Harris.

The Crown Earlswood

By Edel Harris, CEO of Mencap

Advertisement

For far too long, people with a learning disability have been left out of our history and rarely seen or heard in the media. That’s why I am particularly enjoying the new series of The Crown, which has taken huge steps forward in increasing the visibility of learning disability onscreen.

The new series of The Crown is extraordinary in two ways. Not only does the storyline include Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, the Queen’s cousins who both had a learning disability, but it has also cast actors with a learning disability in those parts.

Many viewers might think: ‘What’s the big deal?’ But you only have to look at most news outlets, TV shows and popular movies to see that disabled people and their stories are all too often overlooked.

Only 14 per cent of the public said that they had seen people with a learning disability being talked about in TV reports, according to 2016 research conducted by Mencap. Research also shows that only 2.7 per cent of speaking characters in popular movies, between 2007 and 2016, were depicted as having a disability, of which over two thirds of disabled characters had a physical disability.

Extraordinarily, 16 per cent of Oscars awarded for playing disabled characters have gone to non-disabled actors playing the part. Hollywood is hardly paving the way for authentic representation.

Watching episode seven of The Crown, I was incredibly moved by the performances of the fabulous actors with a learning disability. Pauline Hendrikson and Trudie Emery take the lead roles as Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, while Tina Byrne, who is supported by Worthing Mencap and lived at Royal Earlswood Hospital where the story is set as a young girl, played a key role as their fellow resident.

The Queen's cousins Katherine and Nerissa in The Crown
The Queen’s cousins Katherine and Nerissa in The Crown (Netflix)

If disabled people are left out of the stories told about their lives, there is always the risk that you miss capturing the individual’s unique perspective and just get the stereotype instead. But by casting actors with a learning disability themselves, the new series of The Crown has shown the power of onscreen representation by opening viewers’ minds to someone else’s experiences and how they might see the world.

The actors brought a different level of poignancy and authenticity to the story that I just don’t think would have been possible without that lived experience. Knowing what life was like in the 1980s if you had a learning disability was a huge asset in playing the part.

Like many others at the time, Nerissa and Katherine lived in the Royal Earlswood Hospital, formerly known as “The Asylum for Idiots”. What Nerissa and Katherine’s experience of Earlswood hospital was, we may never know – The Crown’s treatment of their story is merely fiction. But what we do know from history is that from the 19th century right up until the 1990s, it was common for people with a learning disability to be sent away to institutions, often far away from home. They were shut off from society and labelled as deficient or defective.

By bringing their lived experiences to the film set, like Tina sharing memories of what life was really like at Earlswood, these fabulous actors bring truthfulness to the scene. They acted their scenes with an immediacy that makes one feel like you have stepped back in time and into the shoes of the characters and many others like them.

This month is UK Disability History Month, and it is an important time to recognise how far we have come in how we view and treat people with a learning disability. Sadly, there is still much to be done about stigma and discrimination.

In the 1950s, there were approximately 55,000 people with a learning disability living in hospitals. It is now widely accepted that a person with a learning disability has the same rights as everyone else to live in their own home, in the community.  But today, there are still over 2,000 people with a learning disability and/or autism locked away in modern day asylums in England.

I welcome the new series of The Crown bringing to our screens the history of what life was like for many people with a learning disability. Seeing actors with a learning disability on mainstream TV demonstrates how times have changed for the better and how much people with a learning disability have to contribute to society.

I hope that this is the first of many mainstream TV and films to make onscreen representation the standard. Imagine how we far we can go in tackling stigma and discrimination by highlighting the talents and contribution that people with a learning disability bring to all our lives.

Advertisement

The Crown is available on Netflix now. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.