Ralph and Katie: ‘I said from day one we were going to change the world’
On-screen representation allied with behind-the-scenes inclusion makes BBC1’s Ralph & Katie a giant leap forward for British television. The cast and crew of the series, which follows the young couple with Down’s syndrome, explain how they are smashing glass ceilings and preconceptions
Many viewers already know Ralph and Katie. The pair met and fell in love in the most recent series of BBC1’s hit drama The A Word, created by Peter Bowker and starring Morven Christie, Lee Ingleby, Christopher Eccleston and young Max Vento, which began in 2016 and focuses on the family and community around Joe Hughes, a young boy with autism.
In the penultimate episode of series three, which aired during the first lockdown in 2020, Ralph and Katie were married. It was one of the TV highlights of the year.
Now, Ralph and Katie, played by former Big Issue cover star Leon Harrop and Sarah Gordy, take centre stage in a six-part spin-off series focusing on their married life. We see their domestic bliss and family strife, the everyday jealousies and job worries, plus new friendships, fun and laughter. It’s a series to make us laugh, cry and think – starring two brilliant actors with Down’s syndrome, and written and made by a majority-disabled cast and crew.
A series of small adjustments to working practices were made to ensure every contributor could bring their A-game. It feels like a giant leap forward for British television – on-screen representation allied with behind-the-scenes inclusion. Ralph & Katie sets a new benchmark for how the film and television industry can open itself up to all the talents. It’s also cracking good fun.
Here’s how it was made – in the words of actors Sarah Gordy and Leon Harrop, creator Peter Bowker, writer Genevieve Barr, director Jordan Hogg, creative coach Jess Mabel Jones – who worked with the lead actors on the series, and representatives from DANC (Disabled Artists Networking Community).
Peter Bowker (creator): After The A Word went out near the start of lockdown I wanted to get something up and running that would be easy to film under lockdown conditions, and find a way of exploring more of Ralph and Katie’s relationship. Purely as a writer, I felt there was a lot to explore there – and I knew Leon and Sarah were strong enough actors to go on that journey with me.
I pitched six 15-minute mini-dramas to go out on iPlayer. I thought it would be a good way of getting new and emerging disabled writers noticed. To [controller of BBC Drama commissioning] Piers Wenger’s credit, he said: “I want to make it but I want half hours for BBC One”. So that was the end of my fast turnaround lockdown plan.
Leon Harrop (Ralph): When Peter told me, I thought he was joking. It made me the most proud of myself. I couldn’t believe it – I nearly cried with excitement. I was screaming. It was a bigger thing than Manchester United winning the cup.
Sarah Gordy (Katie): It made me really happy. It will be the greatest thing I will have ever done.
Jordan Hogg (Director): I met Pete when I went up for The A Word. I didn’t get the job, but he remembered me. I first heard about Ralph & Katie on Twitter. There was an article saying it had been green lit. I immediately emailed my agent, begging him to get me somewhere near it.
PB: I wanted to show their lives, their relationships, the way they are perceived and how they work in the community. This was built by a writing team of me and five very articulate and strong writers with lived experience of disability.
The starting point was always about the moments that might happen in the first year of married life to any couple. Clearly when that couple are a couple with Down’s syndrome that will inform how the story unfolds – but we weren’t looking for ‘issues’ as such that only they would face.
Genevieve Barr (writer): The honeymoon year of marriage is often filled with things we take for granted. To look at that through the specificity of Ralph and Katie living together for the first time, in a small village in the Lakes, felt fresh and unjourneyed. These two are constantly dealing with other people’s expectations and problems. Peter Bowker is hilarious. We tried to be funny but he outdid us every time.
The doctors told my mum when I was born to take me home and make me comfortable as I would never achieve much in life – well, look at me now
LH: Ralph & Katie is about a married couple who have learning disabilities and they go through a rollercoaster of different things happening. They want a nice life together like everyone does. I really want people to see what we can do. It’s important.
SG: Ralph and Katie both have jobs and live in their own home. It is important so show that people with Down’s syndrome can live independently.
JH: We had had many chats about what the show could be and how we could be pioneering and do things differently.
PB: Once I had decided the writing team was going to be chosen from disabled writers that it was a natural extension to try and make this an inclusive a production off camera as possible. This isn’t tokenism, it is saying what reasonable adjustments can be made in the production process to allow a talented disabled person to do their job as well as possible?
JH: I knew we were embarking on something that had never even been attempted before. I gave the cast and crew a little speech, to remind everyone what we were attempting to achieve and that we were all part of a pioneering project. As soon as we started shooting it became clear that this was a special project.
LH: Sarah and I discussed some ideas for storylines and told Peter Bowker about them. Most of them were a bit silly so they weren’t used! But the words said to my mum by the doctors after I was born were used in one scene. The doctors told my mum when I was born to take me home and make me comfortable as I would never achieve much in life – well, look at me now! My mum wishes those doctors could see me now.
Jess Mabel Jones (creative consultant): Leon and Sarah are two of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. It was a luxurious pleasure to have time to rehearse their scenes with them before we got to shooting. It meant I could properly advocate for them on set. Because advocacy in this role isn’t only about calling breaks on their behalf or translating director’s notes. It’s about ensuring they can deliver their best performances. Sometimes that would mean me asking the director for one more take because I had seen what Leon and Sarah could deliver in rehearsals.
JH: Sarah and Leon amazed me every day. Leon is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with – his listening qualities and timing are second to none. And in once scene, Sarah gave such a wonderful performance I was bouncing up and down on my chair. Immediately after one sombre scene, Leon led the whole cast, crew and passing public in an impromptu dance on the village green! That was a wonderful day.
LH: My favourite scenes are the dancing ones. I love dancing!
SG: I like working with Leon because he makes me laugh. He always makes me happy and comfortable. My character thinks he is a messy pup but I think that he burps a lot!
JH: This show was a great platform to show the industry that we are here; look what is achievable. As a kid, I had dreams to direct. Every disabled kid has dreams. We should move heaven and earth to welcome people into our industry. The accessibility requirements we put in place were, from a financial standpoint, absolutely minimal. There’s no excuse why any production cannot meet access requirements for anyone. All that’s required is the will to open the doors to help others.
Leon Harrop rehearsing a dance scene for BBC1’s Ralph and Katie
GB: Working differently on this series was both an interest and a given. Pete and ITV Studios started with all disabled writers in a Writers Room and two disabled leads. Asking the question from the off – is there anything you need to help you do your job? – meant a receptiveness to new ways of working and a culture of care. Being disabled isn’t a prerequisite for that question. Nor is the benefit of new ways of working. Director Jordan Hogg and producer Jules Hussey created an inclusive work environment like I’ve never seen before. And DANC (Disabled Artists Networking Community) and AAA (Access All Areas) were on hand with their expertise when it was needed.
Melissa Johns (Artistic director – TripleC / DANC): Our involvement in Ralph & Katie was running a training scheme alongside the film’s schedule, which saw a number of deaf, disabled, autistic and neurodivergent creatives getting a taste of what it is like working in high end TV.
Cherylee Houston (co-founder TripleC / DANC): This is a definite game changer for TV in the way that every single beat of that production was made accessible and inclusive.
Katy Boulton (TripleC / DANC): We’ve spoken to trainees who said this experience was so different because access was so deeply embedded in the entire process. Everyone could just focus on their job. And that’s what we’re striving for here that disabled creatives – whether that’s on screen or off screen.
JMJ: I’d like to see this level of inclusion and accessibility built into every production. The industry needs to be employing more Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent and learning disabled people in front of and behind the camera as well as it needs to be better supporting those already here. Working inclusively would ensure we can do just that.
LH: The series is uplifting and shows just because you have Down’s syndrome or any other disability, it doesn’t stop you having a fabulous life – either on TV or in real life.
SG: It will make people laugh and cry. So don’t watch other programmes – watch what Leon and I can do!
LH: I’m REALLY, REALLY, REALLY excited for people to watch the series. I hope they love it as much as I loved making it.
JH: I said from day one that we were going to change the world. When people watch Ralph & Katie, I want them to realise that this is the day that the disabled community stood up and said: we are here, come and get us.
Ralph & Katie airs on BBC1 and iPlayer from 9pm on Wednesday 5 October
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