A star rating of 4 out of 5.

Why aren't disabled people's battles for rights more widely known? There's a rich history of disabled activism chock full of stories and voices, but we rarely hear them. Then Barbara Met Alan addresses that, combining the story of Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth's real-life relationship with amateur documentary-style footage about DAN, the Disabled People's Direct Action Network.


The duo co-founded the organisation, which was a community for disabled people fighting for equal civil rights and led to the first anti-disability discrimination bill passed in UK law in 2005.

The film starts off sweet and laugh-out-loud funny, with Barbara, a comedian, meeting Alan, a punk musician, played in the Then Barbara Met Alan cast by disabled actors Ruth Madeley (Years and Years) and Arthur Hughes (The Innocents). Their love story is both borne out of and destroyed by the protest movement that they established.

They are both ambulatory wheelchair users and the rarity of seeing that human experience depicted on-screen makes its inclusion here all the more exciting. You might be surprised to hear that the access problems they face, which are still a daily barrier to wheelchair users like me, are portrayed with humour, and despite moments of sadness, frustration and rage, Then Barbara Met Alan wants viewers to share in the fun that the creators and actors clearly had telling this story.

It's also radical to see disabled people living their lives in a way that mirrors the reality for many. If TV and film were committed to including disabled talent, that would be a minor detail, but the absence of people like me on-screen makes it more significant than it should be.

The Barbara Met Alan is as much a love story between the two protagonists as it is an account of their activism and the different approaches they took to ensure that they were heard.

Alan wants to "fight every battle" and there's a lot of that throughout the film as people handcuff themselves to buses, in turn bringing traffic to a standstill – pushing back against the notion that disabled people are in any way passive when it comes to protesting.

Barbara, by contrast, is more pragmatic, arguing for bigger changes brought about by political lobbying that stand the test of time – and the film emphasises how vital both methods are in terms of making real change.

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It's a short film – 107 minutes – which does mean that it lacks depth in places, particularly when it comes to character development. While the various people you meet feel real, the short format means that you don't spend as much time with them as they deserve.

Barbara, especially, lacks a robust character arc, spending most of the film carrying a family, a movement and Alan. But it's well worth a watch for both the entertainment value and for the historical and civil rights perspective.

The film arrives during a dark time for disabled people in the UK. The buses Barbara and Alan fought for are now technically accessible, but what good are they if you can’t afford the bus fare because your benefits – being cut in real terms - barely cover basic food and heating? Or you can't leave your house because you no longer have a PA to help you dress? Or you can't go anywhere independently because the NHS won't give you an electric wheelchair despite not being able to propel a manual one?

Then Barbara Met Alan's call for rights and dignity for disabled people is vital but right now, basic survival is a huge issue for the disabled. Systems that are supposed to help us are also responsible for killing us – and the inclusion of some of these more serious ongoing issues around disability rights was sacrificed to make room for a celebratory ending.

While it's great to see both direct action and political lobbying portrayed on-screen – civil rights are never given to groups without a fight – there's no hint that many of the actions portrayed in the film are about to be outlawed by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will criminalise loud, disruptive or trespassing protests – like Barbara and Alan use in the film.

Then Barbara Met Alan
BBC/Dragonfly Film & Television Productions Ltd - Photographer: Samuel Dore

Writers Genevieve Barr and Jack Thorne deserve praise for their commitment to putting real disabled people with real stories on-screen. It should also be noted that with the COVID-19 pandemic being a mass disabling event, this buoyant and powerful depiction of us fighting for our rights will resonate with many newly disabled people in a way it might not have done before.

As much as Then Barbara Met Alan is about spotlighting disability history and celebrating the activists at its centre, it's also about looking at the here and now to ensure that disabled people and their rights remain at the forefront of the conversation.

As the real Barbara says, "Disabled people have a right to inhabit every last corner of this society." We're not there yet, and while the events portrayed in this film were an important victory, it's only the beginning. We still don't need pity – we still need rights.

Read more: Ruth Madeley says Then Barbara Met Alan is 'highlight of her career'

Then Barbara Met Alan airs on BBC Two on Monday 21st March at 9pm. Find something else to watch with our TV Guide. Visit our Drama hub for more news, interviews and features.


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