Saturday, 8 October 2011

Out of the Loop

Who doesn’t love The Thick of It?

There aren't enough good words to describe it adequately in the English language. I don’t speak any other languages so I’ll have to leave it there but suffice to say that I love it.

I also love many people who just happen to be on the autistic spectrum. Now there are many challenges in life lived with autism but I happen to be of the opinion that autism gives us who aren’t on the spectrum much to be grateful for. Art, poetry, literature scientific excellence computer wizardry and the elements of the wonder that is the internet.

There is a theory that Bill Gates is on the Autistic spectrum. I can neither confirm nor deny this but I like to think it’s true. With everything he has achieved, with everything he is using his great wealth to improve he is an amazing ambassador for the condition.

Anyway I digress but I think I’ve made my point. I wouldn’t dream of claiming to know everything about autism, even academics studying the condition for decades wouldn’t attempt to do that.

I do know that it is a massively misunderstood and misrepresented condition. I’ve seen from my children’s teachers, I seen it from their peers. I’ve seen it from people on the streets I’ve seen it from medical professionals and social workers. I’ve seen it from my own friends and extended family. People don’t really understand and even if they have some knowledge they still don’t make many allowances.

In short I’ve seen the pervasive stubborn, offensive and just plain ignorant misunderstanding of autism, which leads us towards stigma and bullying. When I see disablism I challenge it. No matter who you are, or more importantly who you think you are.

It was quite vogue a few years ago to use autism as an abusive belittling term. People like the great writer Nick Hornby was often quoted in the press brilliantly responding to some politician or actor using the new cool epithet for socially inept or aggressive and urging that this playground name-calling stop.

When it comes to name calling no-one does it better than Malcom Tucker. He’s written so brilliantly so vividly as are all of the characters in the series. He is the spin doctor to end them all and the language he uses is the language of an angry, highly articulate H bomb.

He is fictional.

If he or any of the other characters use epithets for disability or impairments within the show they are doing so as characters. They don’t represent anything other than the mythical situation they portray. The characters don’t speak for the actors, the actors speak the words of the writers.

The audience know this and if they don’t they should.

So I watch and enjoy and recognise the difference.

The other night I had some time and decided to watch the special features. I hold my hand up and cry saddo because I am. My theory is don’t put the special features on there unless you want us saddo’s to watch them.

You do, so we will.

I watched Rebecca Front and Joanne Scanlan talking about Malcom Tucker’s nemesis. Steve Fleming, the other spin doctor brought in seemingly to replace Malcom.

He’s foul, so I completely agreed with their assessment of him as being : A bullshitter, fake, unauthentic, smarmy, peculiar, kissy kissy and unctuous.

Then it cut to an interview with Adam Tandy the programmes producer. Not an actor pretending to be a producer.

This is when the wheels fell off my enjoyment wagon.

Adam Tandy reclining nonchalantly in badge and Lanyard like the BBC guy he is said this:

“We know that Malcolm can be aggressive but charming whereas Steve Fleming is the opposite. He would like to think that he is essentially charming although it’s a pretty AUTISTIC form of charm… “



“He would like to think that he is essentially charming although it’s a pretty autistic form of charm”.

(pause turn up volume rewind)


(pause) (play) “but if he’s confronted he’s…it’s like..he’s very passive aggressive you know he will turn and snap at some point.”

WHAT? So having established from the other actors just how foul Steve Fleming is just how unpleasant and snide and oily and devious he is, the final tin lidding coup de grace is the cod diagnosis of AUTISM?

Like everything that went before wasn’t enough to paint a little picture. Apart from which, people with Autism may be many things but passive aggressive isn’t one of them. In my experience they can be passive and they can be aggressive but not passive aggressive ever.

There is no logic to that. The reason so many people with autism have difficulty in social situations with neurotypical people is precisely the fact that so many neurotypical people are passive aggressive and it makes reading the situation impossible and stressful. Also people with autism often have a real fear of social situations not something Steve Fleming seems to suffer from he’s just a dick.

I sat and seethed for a while and then I remembered that because of people with autism spending hours in dark rooms resurfacing the information superhighway we now have things like Twitter.

I had a way of asking the person what the thinking was behind the throwaway soundbite. I needn’t wait to relay my complaint through bored TV call handlers or admin clerks tasked with listening to infuriated viewers only to reach the dead end of an unattributed, hard copy non apology, apology/denial.

I got on Twitter and I asked Adam Tandy directly

@mrsnickyclarknicky clark
@adamtandy Hi just watching The Thick of It special features- You describe Steve Fleming as having "A pretty autistic form of charm" Why? .

Later that evening to his credit he replied asking for my email address as he wanted to explain his comment.

I thought that as his comment was accessible to everyone who has a copy of the DVD then his explanation should be too, but I felt it only fair to allow him to respond. So I sent it to him by DM.

Today whilst standing waiting for a lift that Emily would be happy to ride in (IE one that didn’t contain other people after a very difficult shopping trip that had followed a night of no sleep and her seriously on the edge of a stress induced seizure) I got Adam Tandy’s response.

I’m sharing it now probably because it’s annoyed me in it’s patronising “mansplaining” but also because he completely and spectacularly missed the point. Also because this shouldn’t get swept under anymore BBC embossed carpets.

Autism isn’t a coverall for horrible or unpleasant. It’s not a condition to be equated with unctuous, or bullshitter or unauthentic. The whole beauty about people with Autism is their unfailing honesty and LACK of passive aggression. If you don’t understand the word use another and if all else fails buy a fucking thesaurus.

Anyway this is his response.

Hello there.

I'm sorry not to respond before the weekend, but work has been hectic and my Twitter client managed to spontaneously delete the direct message from you; maybe I shouldn't have taken your advice and unfollowed you so promptly.

Anyway, (thanks to the tweet cache in my other computer...) here are the relevant tweets from your Twitter...

@mrsnickyclarknicky clark
@adamtandy Hi just watching The Thick of It special features- You describe Steve Fleming as having "A pretty autistic form of charm" Why?

@mrsnickyclarknicky clark
I mean seriously did a fucking memo go out to people in the media if in doubt use disability as a cover all negative term?

I hope the following answers the first of your questions.

Steve Fleming was created to be Malcolm's nemesis in The Thick of It but, when developing his character in conversation with actor David Haig, we wanted to make him more than just a one-shot villain or a clone of Malcolm. We wanted to give Steve enough of a rounded character to make him real enough for the actor to to be able to build on the part with improvisation. So, like all the characters in The Thick Of It, there's a fairly well-developed back-story, and character.

Steve's manner with people - his lack of interpersonal skills - is flagged up throughout the script by other characters ("Obsessive Repulsive Disorder", says Olly). And his efforts at compliments and jokes have a "studied" quality to them which usually backfire ("Your face looks quite gaunt and muscly"). They don't find him easy to be with. Look at the way Nicola Murray freezes up when hugged by Steve. And Steve always fails to pick up on this, and continues regardless. Likewise, his own acknowledgement of his difficulty in this area is indicative of his frustrations in dealing with people. (e.g. "I did get the joke by the way") When he loses control of a situation he becomes aggressive, throwing tantrums. He gets out of his depth in conversational banter very quickly and resorts to anger, ("We're in government..." ventures Olly, in the DoSAC meeting at the start of episode 8, prompting a violent outburst from Steve...).

Now, I am absolutely not going to pretend I am an expert in autism or even properly appreciate the wide spectrum of autism-related disorders but I would contend that it is acceptable to describe elements of Steve's behaviour as "autistic". That is not to say that he would be diagnosed as such by a doctor, but in the dictionary sense of the word of having--

difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.

-- in the same way that I might describe someone's involuntary uncontrolled muscle movement as "spastic" I suppose. I am not name-calling here, merely describing, and I am (a bit) offended that you think I might casually throw those terms around as a matter of habit whenever I feel like abusing someone. Or, indeed to be lumped together with all the "people in the media", as if we were some kind of separate (lower) order of humanity. We are all different. We are all individuals.

Anyway, I'm sorry you felt cross enough to tweet about this and I'm even more sorry that it spoiled your enjoyment of our programme which, with all things considered, is intended to be a comedy.
Kind regards
Adam Tandy.

He may be a lovely man who knows. He might give to charity and be lovely to his family and generous to his friends. But the measure of people is in the treatment of those we don’t have to be nice to.

His reply reads as though he is arrogant sadly. It made me tired to think he was offended by me. It made me sad to think that his response was one of predictable defensive denial.