Francesca Martinez is an acclaimed comedian, actress, writer and activist. She also happens to have cerebral palsy, a condition she has re-christened ‘wobbly’.
That kind of undercutting of people’s perceptions about her disability, and her ability to be incredibly funny into the bargain, has made her a sought-after performer internationally, and has seen her acclaimed at the Edinburgh, Montreal and Melbourne comedy festivals.
Currently on a 50-plus date tour, Francesca is coming to Dublin on June 7, bringing her What The **** Is Normal? show to Whelans, something she is very much looking forward to, as she has a long history with the Emerald Isle.
“The first time I came over to Ireland was in 2001. When I was there, I met a lady called Caroline Casey, who runs a charity in Dublin (www.facebook.com/Kanchi.org). She’s an amazing woman, who set up the Ability Awards, and she works to encourage businesses to employ disabled people, and she booked me for their annual gig, and we have been good friends ever since.”
Francesca is constantly busy, as our path to getting a few minutes of her time to talk proved, and looking at her career, she has always been working. Performing to an audience was something that started at a young age.
“I was one of those kids who always wanted to act. I was always putting on plays for my parents and their friends, which I’m sure were awful, but I just loved acting.
“When I was about 13 years old, I heard about this part going in Grange Hill, and I managed to get an audition. Getting the part was a complete dream-come-true, partly because I hated real life school, and it got me out of school for nine months of the year.
“I was doing something that I loved, living a weird double life for a few years, when sometimes I would be a schoolgirl, and other times be filming this TV show, having loads of fun and meeting loads of famous people, it was quite bizarre. But it cemented my love of performing, though I had never considered doing comedy.”
Francesca’s path to becoming a stand-up came by an unusual route, which has its roots in her family, whom she regularly cites as being an inspiration and huge support in her career.
“At the time when Grange Hill was coming to an end, my dad, who is a great writer, said to me, why don’t I write you a film script? He wrote me this amazing script, and he made my character a comedian. I remember reading it and saying to him, I love this, but I can never be a comedian, it’s so scary. He said to me, no, I think you’d be really good at it. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But this company picked up the script and were keen on casting me, and I got really scared. I thought that if I was going to be playing a comedian, I thought I had better research it.
“I joined a comedy workshop in London, and I never said a word for six weeks, which was very unlike me. I had done five years of acting, but the stand-up was terrifying and there was nothing to hide behind. On the seventh week, I was able to get up and perform something I thought was really bad, but everyone laughed. It was kind of a magical moment. I realised there was this amazing power in the connection you can have with strangers in a room, and the ability to be able to say what you want.”
Not only did the experience give her the confidence to get up on stage and be funny, Francesca realised that doing so changed people’s perceptions of her.
“It was also very powerful for me, as it was the first time for me that I had got up in public and acknowledged that I was wobbly. I had been through that typical teenage phase of being embarrassed and self-conscious, and I thought if you ignored who you were and didn’t talk about it, it would be invisible.
“But this new thing allowed me to actually talk about being wobbly, and rather than people being focussed on it more, people just relaxed and accepted me. It taught me a huge lesson, which was that people take the lead from how you see yourself.
“Once they saw that I was cool and happy being me, and happy to talk about it, it wasn’t an issue any more. I remember coming home that night, and saying to my dad, forget the research, this is amazing, I want to do this comedy thing.”
‘This comedy thing’ was immediately clearly something Francesca was massively talented at doing, and after a year of doing open mic spots around Britain, she was in Edinburgh, winning an award as the best new comic in Britain in 2000.
“When I got the award, my dad said, I told you! So it’s really down to him.”
Something Francesca does to great effect in her stand-up, and in all of her public appearances, is challenging people’s perceptions of disability, something she thinks that comedy has a unique power to be able to achieve.
“I think comedy is a great way to challenge an audience, because it’s so enjoyable. It’s not preachy or boring or worthy, often I think comedy allows people to open up in a way that allows comedians to communicate something else to them. Half the time, the audience maybe don’t realise they have been challenged, and they leave thinking, I haven’t thought about that subject that way before. It’s that kind of potential that keeps me going.”
That potential is something that the late Bill Hicks, one of her comedy heroes, was particularly noted for, an influence that lives on through Francesca’s act.
“I love Bill – he was so important because he wasn’t trying to make you laugh, he didn’t care about what the audience thought, and he just expressed what he really wanted to express. Bill used comedy to say really serious things, and I think that I’m fascinated by that combination, and the power comedy can have to challenge views.”
Taking the power back
Hicks’ powerful satire of attitudes and astute skewering of the hypocrisy of the power elite is clearly evident when you watch Francesca on stage, and especially when she has appeared on the likes of Newsnight, when she took on the British government’s cuts to disability benefits and Chris Grayling’s portrayal of disabled people.
Her understanding of what it is to be disabled in the modern world has led to her becoming an outspoken champion of the rights of disabled people, and she recently added her voice to the launch of the People’s Assembly, a new political and social movement dedicated to bringing anti-austerity policies into the mainstream and standing up for the rights of those most affected by austerity politics, including disabled people.
“It’s funny, actually; when I was asked to come help launch the People’s Assembly, it was the first live speech I made that didn’t have to be funny. It was really lovely to be able to talk from the heart, and not worry that I wasn’t getting a laugh from the audience. It was incredibly freeing to be able to speak about what is going on in the current climate, and what I think about things.
“I like the proactive nature of [the People’s Assembly]. To me, it feels constructive – historically, change starts with the masses, and we have to realise that we are the ones who hold the power, which we do because we have the numbers. But that power can never be utilised unless we come together.
“Most people think of politicians and the way they speak, what they say in terms of real people, as very calculated. Politicians have lost the whole point of their jobs, which is to represent their constituency. We live in a world now where governments are now basically acting in the interest of corporations and the elite, and that’s really scary. It means that most of us do not have a voice, and policies are not being made in our interest. It’s a frightening time.”
The opportunity to be able to use her celebrity as a mechanism to deliver messages about society and disadvantage is something that Francesca is happy to be able to do.
“As someone with a public profile, I’m really pleased if I get the chance to speak up about important issues. It’s bizarre because a lot of celebrities can be really scared about talking so-called political, but I love it, particularly as it is part of my job anyway. Speaking on TV programmes like Newsnight and Question Time, I just say the things that most people are thinking, but never get the chance to.
“The reason why I think it’s important to speak about these things, that the people in power are supposed to be representing us, but there is a sense of helplessness.”
“It’s a dark time, really, but I think that we have to keep hoping. That hope that there is something better, and if we fight for it, might mean it could happen.”
Using her comedy as a vehicle to address these issues is something that Francesca has done throughout her career to date.
“All of my shows have had subjects I care about in them. I’m incapable of writing shows where I don’t say things that are beyond the joke, I would be bored by that. That’s what attracted me to comedy, not just making people laugh, but making them think as well.
“More and more, people do need to speak out about what is happening, and if you are a comic, comedy is a natural way of addressing the issues. I want to do that most in my comedy, and outside of it as well.”
Francesca’s presence in the media and on shows like Jonathan Ross and Ricky Gervais’ Extras, where many people will remember her from, is a head-on confrontation with perceptions of disability. Those perceptions are something Francesca has lived with her whole life, and something that resonates with other people with disabilities who come to her shows.
“It’s great when I see other wobbly people in the audience, and I think it matters to them to be able to be able to relate to a comedian out there. I have had really supportive reactions. One of the things I wanted to do was to redefine cerebral palsy as “wobbly” – the names for disabilities are really horrific and scary – I think part of changing people’s mindsets is changing the labels on things. It seems so silly when I say I’m wobbly, but so many people who hear me say it think it’s so cool. They get that ‘wobbly’ is not scary or judgemental, it moves it away from the whole medical angle.
“When you’re born so-called ‘disabled’, the perception is that there is something medically wrong, and I struggled with that for a long time. But I met someone who said to me, that’s just a word that doctors have made up. You are perfectly you, and it changed my whole life. I suddenly realised, I am not ‘wrong’, I’m Francesca, and I’m the way I meant to be. It liberated me from the feeling that I was a faulty product, and I am very passionate about communicating that.”
Francesca also sees her fame as a device by which diversity can be illustrated and accepted in the media, and beyond.
“If people can see me on stage and see me fully happy with myself and happy with my life, I think that’s quite powerful. It’s a real antidote to the superficial stuff that is thrown in our faces all the time.
“When I was growing up, there was no one on the TV, there was no representation of difference. I think its hugely important for the media to start to normalise it. I hosted a session at the London Book Fair a few years ago, and it was about children’s books having disabled characters in them. It was so heart-warming. There were so many disabled kids there who spoke about what it would mean to them to see a character with a walking frame, and how cool that would be. [That kind of positive portrayal] has an impact on the way people think about themselves.
“It just reminded me how invisible diversity and difference is in the mass media, and how divisive that is. Our mass media just shows very rich, very famous, physically ‘beautiful’ people. Most people just feel bad when they see these people represented, as they feel so far from it. If the media just represented all aspects of humanity, people would feel a lot better about themselves. “
Francesca also sees disability that is more common than people perceive, simply by extending its definition by a tiny degree.
“Everyone on earth has a disability, things that we struggle with. I don’t see a difference in that sense. The only thing is that people can say what I struggle with, but it doesn’t make me different. If you look at people in the media, like Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston, people who were held up as being special and successful, you know now that they were terribly unhappy and desperate. And their lives ended early because of that. I think those kind of issues are huge disabilities. There are maybe issues from not being loved enough, or not enough constancy, or not feeling self-worth – those are crippling things.
“We’re all human and we are all going to suffer. Let’s just accept that. Just because you or your kid is able bodied doesn’t mean they are not going to suffer. All I want my kid to be is to be happy. If they have a physical disability or are so-called different, I don’t immediately assume that’s going to cause more suffering. The suffering associated with disability is more to do with other people’s perceptions, and that is something that we can totally change easily.
“My so-called suffering has not come from being wobbly, but from other people. Instead of being obsessed with the eradication of conditions, we should eradicate the fear of difference, that would be a lot easier. I’ve always said disability is normal, as it has always existed. It’s not abnormal, it’s part of the human race. I wish people would accept it more.”