“No offence” – a step too far or taboo busting?

 “No offence” – a step too far or taboo busting?

Simon Jarrett on a controversial drama series from Paul Abbot

In Paul Abbot’s Channel 4 cop drama No Offence a serial killer is on the loose. He is targeting young women with Down’s syndrome and has already killed two. One of them turns out to have been a prostitute who was organising, and profiting from, a sex ring. Her boyfriend Mikey (Richard Beckett), whose services she had been selling, is interviewed by D C Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy), who asks him where he was on the day that his girlfriend was killed. “I was having sex.” Pause. “They made you do things you didn’t want to do?” “No, I’m really good at it.”

For some this series was several steps too far. A A Gill, the Sunday Times TV critic, summarised the plot. He then invited his readers: “Pick the carcass of inappropriate bones out of that. Oh, and one of them was a subnormal prostitute.” He found the whole thing “not believable… embarrassing”.

Rachel Cooke in the New Statesman, however, saw it as “genuinely taboo-busting, with a surplus of energy, wit and originality that embarrasses the hell out of some of the dross I’ve had to endure recently.”

Plenty of offence

What embarrassed and taxed the belief systems of A A Gill so effectively? Perhaps the idea that people with learning disabilities can be as flawed, and engaged in everyday life, as the rest of us. Paul Abbott made his name from the series Shameless, the saga of a roguish, benefit-claiming, dysfunctional, but strangely functional and loveable sink-estate family. They were not, apparently, unlike the family Abbot grew up in. He has never shrunk from saying the unsayable, looking at what no one wants to look at, and giving space on screen to those who are usually kept away from it.

No Offence is in the same vein. The title is of course ironic: the series gave offence left, right and centre, and with magnificent comic timing. Olivia, a young woman with Down’s syndrome (Joanna Finney), whose friend has been murdered, offers to be the decoy to trap the killer. The police are deeply concerned. “What if we’re not quick enough and he attacks you?”  “If he does,” she replies, “I’ll twat him”, to admiring snorts of surprise and guffaws from the assembled police hit-squad. The characters with Down’s syndrome constantly subvert expectations, cheerfully embarrassing all who think they know them. Adam (Leon Harrap) goes into the pub with D C Spike Turner (Will Mellor) and snaps at the barmaid, “I’ll have what he’s having.” The D C hesitates uncomfortably, and orders two Cokes. Adam, affronted, stops him: “I want a pint.”

Admirable television

This was admirable television. It wasn’t just about Down’s syndrome; its beauty was that it incorporated the Down’s syndrome element comfortably and seamlessly into the accompanying plot threads. Richard Hayhow, the advisor to the programme on behalf of the actors with Down’s syndrome, praised the genuineness of the whole thing, which gave the actors an opportunity to show “something a little bit different about themselves, a bit more controversial, hard-hitting, on the edge.” He added, “This is part of a process in gradually changing people’s perceptions of what actors with Down’s syndrome can achieve.” He was particularly admiring of “the range and depth and diversity of characters presented” and the skill with which the actors responded to this challenge. The actors without Down’s syndrome also found it a challenge – but not how you might expect. Will Mellor marvelled at the comic timing of Leon Harrap: “The one thing you don’t do is to work with this man. Every scene we’ve done he’s stolen off me.”

Yes, this was challenging and shocking at times – it was also great television. No Offence represents a huge step forward for actors with Down’s syndrome. More power to Paul Abbot’s elbow, and long may he go on offending and upsetting A A Gill.

To see interviews with the actors with Down’s syndrome, and other cast members from No Offence, see http://www.channel4.com/programmes/no-offence/videos/all/acting-with-downs-syndrome