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> > > Jess Thom on taking Biscuit Land to the small screen

In partnership with Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and Arts Council England, BBC Four’s Live From Television Centre will feature a half hour slot from Jess Thom aka Touretteshero. Colin Hambrook caught up with the performer during rehearsals in the BBC studio at Wood Lane.

photo of Jessica Thom in blue superhero costume on a ride in a funfair

Jessica Thom as Touretteshero. Photo © Sam Robinson

Jess Thom’s career as a comedienne is reaching dizzying heights. Broadcast from Biscuit Land will be screened as part of a night that celebrates diverse theatre bringing the ‘liveness’ of independent theatre-makers to our screens as a last blast from the iconic building that has been the site of so much television history.

Thom says:

“We were approached to propose an adaptation of the stage show adjusted for television. Some of the key monologues from Backstage in Biscuit Land will be there, but we’ve brought in the additional writing team of Liz Carr and Alan Connor to help us create new scenes.  The piece ends with a surreal Tourettes tic-driven all-biscuity, grand finale, which may or may not include dancing cats.”

“Live From Television Centre is a very different way of making TV. We’re being supported as artists to make something we want to make and to reach people who might not usually access the theatre.”

“We’ve had a relationship with BAC for the last 2 years. They’ve been very supportive and gave us our first opportunity to do a scratch performance, which was the first time I’d performed to a theatre audience.”

“BAC are curating the whole evening, which has been designed to showcase work that is reflective of the diversity of British Theatre.

The BBC have brought their specialist knowledge to the table too. The broadcast will feature elements of the stage show, incorporating a bit more about me and my journey to the stage.”

“I very recently did a TV interview on Russell Howard’s Good News on BBC Two. The broadcast has had an amazing 3 million views plugging the forthcoming Live From Television Centre. Having that slot was a bit of serendipity and has brought a warm response. Often interviews focus on challenges and life history, but this was rooted in comedy and gave permission for people to laugh and enjoy the creativity that can be accessed because of Tourettes.”

Touretteshero first received an Unlimited R&D in May 2014. Jess Thom and her accomplice Jess Mabel Jones performed their show Backstage in Biscuit Land (BIBL) as part of the Unlimited showcase at the Southbank Centre in Autumn 2014. Since then, the show has toured the UK with resounding success as a piece of theatre, but also in terms of opportunities for innovations in access, opening theatre-makers up to the possibilities of ‘relaxed performances’. Thom expands:

 “I couldn’t have predicted the journey BIBL has taken me on or the response it has had. It is the first piece of theatre I’ve made and the original aim with the Unlimited R&D was to engage with theatre-producers about accessible performances and to get the show to Edinburgh.

“No-one thought about what impact we might have. I’m really pleased several theatre makers, directors and producers have become interested in the idea of relaxed performances. It has been a clear example of how art can be a real catalyst for change. Daniel Kitson, for example, has shown commitment and held relaxed performances of his show Tree at The Old Vic earlier this year.”

“During Backstage in Biscuit Land I talk about the difficulties I had seeing Mark Thomas perform at the Tricycle. Even after getting the theatre’s agreement to me being in the audience I was still subject to discrimination. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t endure that again and it has felt like my battle to get into a theatre has gone full circle, having gone to see Thomas’s show at the Tricycle again at the end of last year with the comic’s backing to put on a relaxed performance. It has reminded me that the fight for rights can take a surprising positive direction.”

“Relaxed performance isn’t the only useful convention for accessible theatre. I like the idea of relaxed venues. I want to go and see theatre when I want to and not just when there is a relaxed performance. A wider conversation has begun sharing good accessible practice with open-minded theatre-makers. It has been about up-skilling theatre makers to think in a very different way: being open to ideas brings knowledge and confidence. Mostly theatres don’t even realise who they are excluding when they stick to the conventions they are used to.”

“Unlimited recognised that BIBL had done more than anyone was expecting and have continued to support the show. They helped us to build in Audio-Description within the text and to develop new props. So, we were in a good position for the British Council Showcase and IF Platform back in August and the run we’ve just had at the Barbican and Soho theatres.”

“As a disabled artist being supported by Unlimited with their knowledge of disability arts and culture, and being connected with a whole community of disabled practitioners has benefited my practice and impacted on my life in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Being part of a cohort of disabled people and being valued by the community has been immense.”

“I remember stumbling across Liberty Festival in Trafalgar Square ten years ago and feeling there was this incredible arts scene, being funny and gently acknowledging my experience. It was a relief to find myself in a safe place. Liz Carr and Mat Fraser were compering in the cabaret tent and responding to my tics Mat joked that neither of us would be welcome at the National Theatre. And now, we see those possibilities opening up because of the shift that disabled people have brought to the arts, nurturing and challenging each other to make high quality work.”

“The BBC Ouch podcast was my first contact with a witty irreverent disabled-led voice in disability arts and culture. It provided an opportunity to tap into something that fed a need for reflecting the experience of disabled people in a way that avoided the usual tired narrative we get in the media.”

“That shift has been spurred by the Social Model of Disability. It blew my thinking open in terms of peoples’ expectations and how I relate to my body. I had that light-bulb moment that lots of disabled people talk about in realising how society disables us. It’s important that people challenge ideas, but the impact of understanding the social model and how it relates to your life and the lives of other disabled people, gives a way forward.”

“So many of the structures that were in place to support disabled people to live independent lives have been dismantled in recent years. Ambitions are being capped because of the structures designed to disable and limit what we have access to. There is a big difference between having basic needs met and having the right to an independent life. With the abolition of the Independent Living Fund and Access to Work and all the other attacks on disabled peoples’ rights our only option is to keep fighting.”

“We need to keep communicating and challenging the powers that be. Doing so creatively with art and humour is one way. We need to keep the conversation going in as many ways as possible, drawing people on side.”

As well as Touretteshero’s ‘Broadcast from Biscuit Land’, Live From Television Centre will feature performances from Gecko, Richard DeDomenici, and Common Wealth across a two-hour live broadcast on Sunday 15 November 2015 at 9pm. Islington Community Theatre will create a fifth performance released exclusively on BBC iPlayer the same day.


Jane mccormick

7 December 2015

I saw this show on the live BBC screening and was totally blown away by amazing piece of theatre. I wanted to get up an dance during the wonderfully biscuity grand finale. Congrats to Jess Thom, Jess Mable and the entire Touretteshero production team.