Roar talent

Bradford’s fresh-faced comedian Jack Carroll and director Jason Wingard from Manchester talk about the representation of disability in the arts and entertainment and in their new film Eaten by Lions

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“Humour is an important way to gain perspective on a situation,” suggests comedian Jack Carroll. “If you can laugh at something, you can remove yourself from it slightly. That’s the aim of good comedy, isn’t it? To hold a magnifying glass up to serious issues
so people can think back on them in a more relaxed way.”

“Comedy doesn’t thrive in a conservative atmosphere. It has to be able to take chances.”

Few know the importance of on-screen diversity better than Carroll. Born in 1998 with cerebral palsy, the comedian turned actor and Bradford native charmed audiences on 2013’s Britain’s Got Talent with stand-up routines that weren’t afraid of a little self-referential humour. Since then, this 20 year old’s career has blossomed. Despite leaving the show as a runner-up, he’s opened for Jason Manford, performed on BBC Two’s Live at the Apollo and bagged himself a Pride of Britain Award in 2012.

Cut to 2019 and you’ll find him in Eaten By Lions, a feelgood family comedy helmed by award-winning Manchester director and former comic Jason Wingard. This northern tale follows half-brothers Omar (Antonio Aakeel) and Pete (Carroll) and their search for Omar’s biological father after his adoptive parents are – as the title suggests – eaten by lions. Their trip takes them to the streets of Blackpool, through rundown digs owned by B&B manager Ray (Johnny Vegas) and eventually into the home of Omar’s Indian birth family, where his reluctant father Irfan (Asim Chaudhry) awaits. It’s a sweet and very funny story that paints a modern picture of both disability and Britain while avoiding any of the groan-inducing clichés that often come with such representation.

Having made his feature debut with 2017’s Syrian refugee drama In Another Life, Wingard was accustomed to handling issues with care – and by hopping genres into comedy, he felt he’d found the perfect vehicle for positive characterisation.

“The idea all along was to have an Asian family and a character with disability and never have those two things at the forefront of the story,” Wingard tells Big Issue North. “Comedy is about risk and I think that’s why similar comedy has failed in the past – because people haven’t been prepared to take enough risk with it. It doesn’t thrive in a conservative atmosphere. It has to be given a platform to take chances.”

Carroll first collaborated with Wingard in 2013 when he starred in Going To Mecca, the short film that ultimately became Eaten By Lions.

“Jack was only 13 or 14 years old and had just finished Britain’s Got Talent,” recalls the director. “We were looking for a young actor who understood comedy and he’s a real natural. Jack’s like a 45-year-old man in a kid’s body – and that’s an oddity.”

Going To Mecca went on to win the Virgin Media Shorts Award. When the time came to develop it for the big screen Carroll was surprised to learn that he’d already crossed paths with his co-star and on-screen brother Antonio Aakeel.

“It’s funny” says Carroll. “I knew Antonio from a project that never got off the ground. We had a good rapport and irritated each other in the same way that brothers do, so that helped.”

Wingard explains how he used their sibling-esque bond to his advantage. “You want Jack to have his own personality so what we tried to do when rehearsing was to get him to be himself and give a more natural performance. He has such a warm and lovely personality and you’ve got to capture that.”

Wingard’s method suited Carroll, especially while sharing scenes with stand-up veteran Johnny Vegas. “Jason was happy for us to chuck in lines when he thought it was appropriate. I’m not very good at learning lines so I was able to mask my deep unprofessionalism as some artistic choice,” smiles Carroll. “Scenes with Johnny were incredibly difficult because you can’t laugh. He helped me through that by saying the most ridiculous things right before the camera started rolling. You’re in a B&B with Johnny Vegas in a cheap wig. How are you not suppose to laugh at that?”

Wingard enlisted a host of established comic talent to join his fresh-faced leads, including Chaudry from BBC Three hit People Just Do Nothing and perennial Brit funnyman Kevin Eldon. With his players set, production began in Blackpool, with Wingard keen to portray this seaside town in a new light.

“It was our love letter to that area,” says Wingard on presenting a fresh view of the popular northern spot. “I’ve worked there a couple of times and the people – not just in Blackpool but in St Annes where we also shot – were absolutely fantastic. We looked at it through a child’s eyes and wanted to make it beautiful and how we remembered it as kids.”

Carroll shares the sentiment. “I love Blackpool. When things start getting a bit crazy all the other seaside towns were like ‘Come on lads, we’ve got a nice seaside here’, but Blackpool said ‘Can we put a giant mirror-ball in the centre of town?’” laughs the comedian. “The sunny atmosphere of Blackpool looms large in the British cultural consciousness and I think Jason made it as much of a character as the physical characters, and that adds something to it. We’ve done our bit for the tourist board.”

This reassessment of a town brings us back to Eaten By Lions’ underlying message: better representation. And based on its recent audience award win at 2017’s London Indian Film Festival, it’s doing its job.

“If people can see themselves represented on screen and the butt of the joke isn’t a paper-thin caricature, then they’re quite happy with it,” reasons Wingard. “We’re seeing more roles appearing but there should be a lot more groups represented from our society. It’s a bit tiring that we’re still having to deal with certain things in this day and age. There’s some stuff particularly with disability and race that feels very tokenistic and outdated. I just think: why is this even an issue anymore?”

Carroll has similar thoughts about the representation of disability in the media.

“It’s a flourishing idea in TV and film so it’s going to be a little bit on the nose. That helps raise awareness but as the novelty wears off if more people could follow our lead, where it’s just a by-product and not referenced so overtly, then that would be better for everyone.

“More can always be done but it’s a positive trend. I’ve got my hat in the ring for the next James Bond but I don’t know if they’ll go for that.”

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