Then Barbara Met Alan review: BBC Two drama about disabled activists is an incisive but all-too-brief biopic

Ruth Madeley and Arthur Hughes star in Jack Thorne and Genevieve Barr’s incisive biopic of 90s disability rights activists

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Then Barbara Met Alan tells the story of two activists in the 1990s: Barbara Lisicki (Ruth Madeley) and Alan Holdsworth (Arthur Hughes). It’s about their first meeting in the London cabaret scene, where she was a stand-up comedian and he was musician Johnny Crescendo, and traces the rise and fall of their relationship alongside the Direct Action Network, the campaign group they established to fight for the rights of disabled people.

One of the most immediately striking things about Then Barbara Met Alan is the sheer economy and efficiency of its storytelling. In a little over an hour, it covers around seven years of events – from early protests against ITV’s patronising charity telethons (“piss on pity,” the protestors say, rejecting it) to attempts to pass parliamentary bills years later, hand in hand with the strains and pressures that placed on Barbara and Alan’s relationship. It moves quickly – it has too – but never feels rushed, an acute portrait of the ups and downs of a whirlwind romance at the centre of a revolutionary project.

Within that, it’s impressive how much space Then Barbara Met Alan affords Madeley and Hughes. It’s a snapshot of their talents rather than a full showcase, but you get an immediate sense of their range nonetheless: Hughes impresses in the moments of bravado and depression alike, while Madeley brings a sort of burnished steel that acts as both foundation and frame of this story. There’s a sense as well that Then Barbara Met Alan is committed to giving both actors the opportunity to play against type, in a sense, consciously written against the limitations typically placed on disabled characters in film and television. There are scenes in Then Barbara Met Alan that are essentially unique on British television – not for being unusual on their own terms, but for the sheer paucity of disabled stories on screen.

Again, there’s something very precise and very keenly calibrated about Jack Thorne and Genevieve Barr’s script (my favourite of his, and a strong introduction to her ahead of Ralph and Katie), which maintains a certain lightness of touch while trying to accommodate a number of demands placed upon it. Then Barbara Met Alan is incisive and funny, informative and entertaining, and dense – in terms of the amount of the content it includes in 67 minutes – without ever losing its balance.

It makes for a nice contrast, too, against the rest of the television landscape. There’s this huge cultural fascination with wealth and excess, with how cruel and fickle rich people became even crueller and even richer – some more compelling than others, but together part of a wave of programmes that speak to the sort of stories we have time for (and those we don’t). Then Barbara Met Alan’s story of radicalism and collective action, borne of an arts scene and not shackled to electoral politics, is genuinely heartening to see.

Really, it’s enough to make you wish that this was the sort of story that could get the funding and the support for a more elaborate project. Again, Then Barbara Met Alan is a really great hour-long piece, displaying a real command of form and pacing, not just because of Thorne and Barr’s script but Bruce Goodison and Amit Sharma’s direction (very fluid, and endearingly 90s). It’s better at being a one-off drama than a lot of other programmes are at being miniseries, in a way.

But wouldn’t it be great if a biopic about the Direct Action Network was the sort of story that could get realised as an eight-hour miniseries? One of those big prestige pieces, with a big budget and more minutes of screentime than it’d know what to do with – a series that has a much bigger canvas to work on, one that can take detours and devote more time to supporting characters, one that can act as a full showcase for Madeley and Hughes (and the host of new talent introduced here) rather than just a brilliant snapshot?

That’s not to take away from what Then Barbara Met Alan does, of course, because it does it so well. But it’s also, hopefully, going to prompt even more stories like this – more leading roles for Madeley and Hughes, more television drama about activism and hard-fought battles like this, and an industry that’s more receptive to and (financially and critically) supportive of stories about disabled people. And maybe a massive budget for Thorne, Barr, Madeley, and Hughes to expand this into an eight-part prestige miniseries, but that’s slightly less of an immediate priority.

Then Barbara Met Alan is on BBC Two at 9pm on Monday 21 March. I’ve seen the first and only episode before writing this review.

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