Liam Bairstow, a 26-year-old actor with Down’s syndrome, has been signed to Coronation Street after impressing producers at a disability workshop.
Liam will arrive on the cobbles as Alex, nephew of Roy Cropper’s new love interest Cathy Matthews (played by Melanie Hill), later this year. The actor, who used to be part of the Mind The Gap theatre group, said he would jump at the chance to be on ITV — although he had his sights set on a rival soap: “I would love to be on ITV, maybe playing a Dingle on Emmerdale!”
Mind The Gap is England’s largest learning-disabled theatre group. Based in West Yorkshire, the award-winning company aims to bring equal opportunities to actors with learning disabilities and produce work that challenges audiences to “think differently.”
The announcement was made during a “Corrie Press Day” and posted on the official Coronation Street Twitter account: “Cathy’s nephew Alex to be played by Liam Bairstow who was cast during ITV’s #breakingthroughtalent #CorriePressDay.”
Corrie producer Stuart Blackburn told Digital Spy: “We ran a workshop called Breaking Through a while ago, which was for actors with disabilities. It was recognising that they get so few auditions, and actually we found a young guy there called Liam Bairstow, an actor with Down’s syndrome.
“It’s not some politically correct thing,” he stressed. “We actually found there a really great actor with a wonderful sense of timing. The cast have been really enjoying working with him.”
Whatever part political correctness has played in the decision it’s a good one. Fans on Twitter praised the channel for its “exciting new approach to casting” and for bringing “diversity” to the long-running soap.
It could be argued that EastEnders has always led the way when it comes to diversity in British soaps, featuring several major characters of different ethnicities and receiving praise for its portrayal of characters with disabilities, including Janet, daughter of Billy and Honey Mitchell, who was played by a child actor with Down’s syndrome. In 1987 EastEnders was responsible for screening the first ever gay kiss in a U.K. soap. It has also featured a young Asian struggling with his sexuality and domestic violence in a mixed-race lesbian relationship.
Earlier this year EastEnders writer Tony Jordan teamed up with actors Jimmy Akingbola and Fraser Ayres to help set up a new production company aimed at promoting diversity both on screen and behind the scenes.
“The issue with diversity in the industry is not a lack of talent, just a lack of avenues for that talent to be reached,” said Jordan. “We are delighted to provide creative backing to TriForce Productions, to help broadcasters access that talent and engage their audiences with programming that better reflects our contemporary culture.”
However Coronation Street isn’t far behind its BBC counterpart when it comes to diversity. It was the first soap to introduce a transgender character (Hayley Cropper in 1998), although she was played by a cisgender actor. Nonetheless Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of Hayley — including her trip to get gender-reassignment surgery and her frustration that she had insufficient legal status as a transgender person and so initially couldn’t marry Roy — helped spark a national debate that led to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, a law that changed the lives of trans people by granting them full legal status.