The girl in the chair

Single YouTube episode of early ’70s ground-breaking TV

Let’s pick up from where we left off in the last blog – the lack of positive role models for disabled kids growing up in the 1970s and my aversion to Colin, the ‘cripple’ in the BBC’s adaptation of the classic children’s book, The Secret Garden.

When I was trying to work out why I loathed that series so much, I came to the conclusion that it was because it’s screening coincided with my twin sister Jenny going into hospital for a major operation to rectify problems caused by her cerebral palsy. The operation was a complete failure but Colin in The Secret Garden got better – though quite how ‘disabled’ he was to start with is questionable.

Something else which no doubt made six-year-old-me take a strong dislike to the series was because it was being broadcast in the same weeks as a ground-breaking – no, mind blowing – children’s TV series, The Changes. A ten-part sci-fi classic based on Peter Dickinson’s The Changes: A Trilogy, there’s no way I, as a six-year-old, should have been watching such a programme. It was scary. It even came with a viewers’ warning from the nicely-spoken BBC announcer that it was ‘for older children’. It was clearly one of the most memorable dramas I’ve ever watched on TV and my scribbly written diary from 1975 bears that out. No other TV show gets a mention. How could dull, girly Secret Garden ever stand up against The Changes?

It was when I was thinking about this and vaguely remembering that Dickinson had written a previous children series from earlier in the ’70s called something like ‘Mad Dog’ or ‘Man Dog’, I decided to do a bit of Googling: Man Dog, first broadcast on BBC1 in January 1972. To my surprise, someone had posted a scratchy copy of its first episode on YouTube.

And there it was, in the very opening frame. To my amazement – a young teenager being pushed in a wheelchair as she talks animatedly to her friend. The next scene’s in a classroom, a mainstream school at that. And they look out of a window from a first floor room, so the school must have had a lift!

As Man Dog was written especially for television, there’s no book to ascertain the remainder of the plot. Only one episode’s been posted on YouTube. So far – in episode one – the central character, the disabled girl, remains disabled and her disability is coincidental to the plot. Let’s hope it stayed that way and she didn’t ‘do a Colin’ and ‘get better’.

Ok, you have to overlook, or rather overlisten the hideous ’70s theme music which is a bit like the old Radio 4 panel game, Many a Slip – it’s a right old Radiophonicrama! Look too deeply and it’s got its incongruities. Kate, the disabled girl can walk short distances with crutches and manoeuvre herself into a chair, but at school the teacher asks her friend to ‘wheel her over’ the comparatively short space of the school classroom. Yet there’s something fresh and startling to see a screen portrayal of a young disabled British teenager from as far back as 1972.

Hidden gay TV history is becoming well documented as more discoveries are unearthed – the earliest seemingly from a play South on Granada TV in 1959. Black TV history too has many known milestones: in the past few days there’s been news of the discovery of the first interracial kiss on TV – another Granada TV production, You in Your Small Corner, from 1962. As for disability TV history, might Man Dog be the first example of an ordinary character in a contemporary drama who happens to be disabled?

About Ed Green

Writer and editor, Yorkshire bred, now living and working in Central London. This blog charts the writing of my memoir 'Twinned' - life with and without my disabled sister. It features disability issues, cerebral palsy, traumatic death, bereavement, twinless twins, guest posts, and throws in the occasional 'off topic' post.
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