Ruth Madeley: ‘I never saw a body like mine on screen’

Living with spina bifida has made Bafta-winning actress Ruth Madeley determined to defy expectations. And, discovers Hattie Crisell, her brave new role is breaking barriers, too.

Ruth Madeley is no diva. The 34-year-old actress is ‘a rose-tinted-spectacles kind of person’, she explains, who errs on the side of being polite and understanding. This has put her in difficult situations, such as when employers have failed to provide her with wheelchair access (Ruth has spina bifida). She says, with a bit of self-mockery, ‘When I started out, if someone said, “We can’t provide a ramp,” I’d reply, “Don’t worry! I’ll crawl upstairs.”’

She is, then, very different to the real person she is playing in her latest role – disability-rights activist, comedian and fellow wheelchair-user Barbara Lisicki.

The one-off BBC drama Then Barbara Met Alan depicts the events that saw Barbara and Alan Holdsworth (played by Arthur Hughes, who has radial dysplasia) meet in 1989. The pair were cabaret performers who went on to found the Direct Action Network (DAN), which led protests for disabled rights. They chained themselves to trains and buses and blocked roads to protest against workplace discrimination, inaccessible public transport and patronising coverage of disabled people on TV. Their work helped bring about the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, which laid the groundwork for 2010’s Equality Act.

Ruth Madeley
Joseph Seresin

Barbara, who started using a wheelchair after contracting juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, was defiant in taking on politicians and police – DAN’s placards were emblazoned with the words ‘P*ss on pity’. I imagine Ruth’s approach might be a bit softer? ‘I’d be behind Barbara [urging her on]. I’d be like, “I’m going to tell them!” Then I’d get there and instead ask politely, “Could we do this, please?”’ she laughs.

Ruth and her elder sister Liz were brought up in Bolton, where the family still lives. Ruth’s mother was a nurse and her father worked in customer services. They found out that Ruth had spina bifida six weeks before she was born. ‘They were very much of the opinion, “It doesn’t make a difference – we’ll just crack on,”’ she says. ‘My sister’s non-disabled but we were never treated differently. My mum and dad always had the attitude that it might take us a bit longer to do something but we’ll still do it. So I’ve always had that mentality, and I’m very grateful for it. We’re positive people.’

Ruth studied scriptwriting at university and was doing a placement at the BBC when someone suggested she audition for the children’s show Half Moon Investigations, which needed an actress in a wheelchair for one episode. She got the part, caught the acting bug and her career has flourished. In 2015 she appeared in Don’t Take My Baby – the story of a disabled couple fighting to retain custody of their child. It won a Bafta for Best Single Drama, and Ruth was nominated for Best Leading Actress. She’s also had parts in Cold Feet and The Accident.

And though she’s unfailingly agreeable, Ruth is formidable, too. She has had surgery on her back several times over the years and completed her GCSEs and her degree from a hospital bed. She even had an operation during her first week at Edge Hill university near Liverpool. ‘I went into the hospital and said, “Listen, it’s freshers’ night and I can’t miss it, because that’s when all your friendships form.” So they did my blood tests and I said, “I’ll be back at 6am!”’

Ruth Madeley and Barbara Lisicki
Ruth with the real Barbara Lisicki (left) during filming of Then Barbara Met Alan. Image: Samuel Dore

In life, her disability is only a side plot and in her work it’s often also incidental; the character she played in the BBC drama Years and Years was not written as a wheelchair user until she was cast in the role. But her latest project means a lot. ‘I was a child when these events were happening, I was too invested in Barbies,’ she says. ‘It was really humbling to learn what the campaigners went through – but I also found it really emotional because so much of what they were fighting for, we’re still fighting for. A lot has changed but not enough.’

I ask where she’d like to see more progress. ‘Transport,’ she says, and I think of my local tube station, which has a long flight of stairs and no lift or escalator. ‘It’s a nightmare, especially in big cities like London. I’ve lived there and I’ve never felt more stressed out in my entire life. I can’t rely on public transport, and to get cabs everywhere is extortionate.’

Last year, on the very day that Ruth was announced in the role of Barbara Lisicki, she ordered a London minicab to take her and her mother from a costume fitting back to Euston station. As the traffic was heavy, the driver refused to go all the way to the station’s accessible entrance. He’d seen Ruth stand up, so he insisted she use the main entrance, despite the fact that it involves stairs, which she can’t manage. He then demanded money even though the journey had been paid for in advance. When Ruth explained this, he took her wheelchair from behind her and put it in the boot of his car. Her mother managed to snatch it back.

Ruth shared this story on Instagram but when I bring it up today, she just shrugs wearily. ‘That wasn’t an isolated incident – that’s happening to people all the time,’ she says. ‘In all forms of public transport you can have nightmare stories. I’m sure that won’t be my last.’ Were there consequences for the driver? ‘I don’t know. The relevant people were made aware. It’s exhausting to have to track these things, so all I can do is pass on the information.’ She gives me a twinkly smile. ‘I mean, I had a drama to film – I was busy.’

Ruth has several projects in development, including some writing work. ‘I’m very privileged with where I’m at – I know the opportunities and the success I’ve had in a short period aren’t the norm. Do I think there are enough opportunities for disabled actors in general? No. But Then Barbara Met Alan has a predominantly disabled cast and every single one of them could hold a show on their own. I hope that I can open doors for other people who are more talented than I am.’

She also feels a responsibility now to speak out when necessary. ‘Earlier in my career, I was on set and they’d not booked an accessible toilet, so the entire production had to stop while I got taken back to base to use the bathroom. That’s a horrible feeling when everyone’s waiting for you, so I just didn’t drink anything for the rest of the shoot.’

Nowadays, Ruth wouldn’t hesitate to say she needed a bathroom on set. ‘It’s not like asking for only blue M&Ms in my trailer – it’s about my right to be able to do my job. I’ve learnt that if I don’t ask for what I need it’ll be much harder for the next person. I can’t say, “this is how the industry should be” if I don’t play my own part in changing it.’

Then Barbara Met Alan is also breaking ground with a moving sex scene between Barbara and Alan, shot tastefully but without shying away from the scars on Ruth’s back. How does she feel about such scenes? She laughs. ‘They’re terrifying! I’d done smaller scenes before but nothing as intimate as this. Growing up, I never saw a body like mine on screen. So this felt really important because it wasn’t just one disabled body, it was two, and it was really beautiful, one of the proudest moments of my career.’

Off screen, Ruth’s partner of nine years is Joe Lawrence, who she’s known since they were friends at school. ‘I am very lucky – but don’t tell him that,’ she jokes. He owns a company that trains people to operate cranes and for many years he was also a motorbike racer. ‘He’s a lunatic,’ says Ruth. ‘When he raced, I was in the pit lane going, “Thirty miles an hour’s fast enough!” I’m frightened of everything, he’s frightened of nothing, so we balance each other out.

‘My job is his idea of hell. He’s the perfect combination of so unbelievably proud of me, but also so nonchalant about the whole thing.’ She took him to the Baftas: ‘I think he would pay me never to take him again. Joe is happy when he’s in his garage working on his bikes – not in a tux on a red carpet.’

Ruth’s life in Bolton, then, with Joe tinkering in the garage and her family down the road, isn’t very showbiz. ‘And I love that. Especially when I don’t get the job I want, or someone’s said something online… To have that real solid ground at home is perfect.’ She wouldn’t want a fuss, after all.

Then Barbara Met Alan is on BBC iPlayer.