Francesca Martinez has been a familiar face since her days as Rachel in the children’s soap opera, Grange Hill. Oddly, it wasn’t the fact that she as disabled that was most apparent to her real school peers or that she was on telly, it was the fact that she didn’t even have a telly that caught the attention of other kids determined to give her a hard time: “How can I miss a lot of school legally and suddenly I got offered this part on Grange Hill. It felt like I’d won the lottery and of course all the girls hated me even more than they did already.
My parents chose not to have a telly. I suppose they thought: ‘you’re brain damaged already’ we don’t want anything else to happen. When the girls art my school found out they were like, ‘Sod the cp you’re a freak!’ They just could not get over this. They were appalled.”
Of course having cerebral palsy certainly didn’t go unnoticed but Francesca tells us that she soon discovered the value of perception. “I got labelled ‘cerebral palsy’. I thought it was very negative and it really left a deep mark on me. Then I realized one day that I could make up my own word (for it) and my neighbour had kids – they’d used to call me ‘wobbly lady’. It was so non-judgemental but accurate and I thought, you know what, we’re all a bit wobbly sometimes.”
There were still difficult days, although Francesca explains how it began to run off her: “They ran up to me a said ‘You’re a spastic’ – and I was like: really, I hadn’t noticed”. Again though, it was the other differences that make Francesca who she is: “It was less about being wobbly than my other differences – I was partial to a bit of Frank Sinatra, I was vegetarian – on every level, everything I did was wrong. I would have bullied me, let’s face it.”
We all go through times when we try to find out who we are and for Francesca this meant defying ‘what’ she was, to an extent, in terms of the way people viewed her. She came tentatively to comedy because of a persistent attraction to the stage, joining a comedy workshop, only for a football legend to intervene.
“In order to do comedy, I knew you had to have some level of self-acceptance and I didn’t – I wasn’t there yet. Luckily on the day Glenn Hoddle made his infamous comments about being disabled and karma, I just thought ‘thank you for being a twat’ and I wrote this routine about ‘Oh my god what must I have done?’ – ‘I must have been an axe murderer or something’. I performed this routine very badly but everyone laughed. I suddenly felt – I want to do this. But it was deeper than that. It was the moment when I stopped being ashamed of who I was. This is me; I’m wobbly.
I do actually love Glenn. He’s given me an entire career.”
There have been friends (and family) down the years that have supported her and helped to guide her towards her ambitions. Francesca describes one such moment, telling us how a friend had said: “You’re not brain damaged – it’s just a label – you’re perfectly you.
It’s an act of civil disobedience to be yourself – you’re not encouraged to do it. It takes a real strength of character to say, I’m fine the way I am. That changed my life.”
Even people like doctors have been reluctant to be positive as Francesca remembers: “They said I’d never lead a ‘normal life’. I don’t want to lead a normal life”, adds Francesca, “I want to lead an amazing life!”
Anybody that thinks that fame is the answer to all of their problems should probably think again. Whilst it’s true that Francesca remains well known, discrimination does still show itself at times – a subject that obviously frustrates her: “I’m aware that the comedy industry is hard for anyone to get into – especially if you’re a wobbly woman – it’s a little bit harder. It is funny – the panel shows won’t book me because I’m too scary – Raaaah! ‘Francesca, we think you’re very funny but we think you’ll make the audience very nervous’. And I say what? – you have Frankie Boyle on!”
Francesca also has an eye on the wider world and how attitudes towards difference and diversity are distorted. “I think it’s really important that we start challenging this crazy notion – this link between physical perfection and external things such as wealth and power leading to happiness. I think that’s bollocks. I think happiness comes from being happy with who you are. Our culture makes us look at what we don’t have.
Life is so amazing and it will be over so quickly and we don’t want to waste it on thinking about cellulite. Don’t let anyone talk you into hating your body because I believe that our bodies are miraculous whether they’re wobbly or not.”
So what does the future hold, framing it as we are with questions like ‘what the f**k is normal?’ Francesca feels passionately that one of the most important things we can do is integrate schoolchildren simply because they will then have a chance to grow up experiencing ‘difference’.
“If we don’t grow up with difference, we’re never going to accept it as a normal part of life. So I really think that we need to have children of all abilities growing up together.
I’m not saying that we don’t need to find proper support but we should give that support in mainstream society because they’ll hit the (leaving) age very soon and they won’t know how to deal with people and neither will society.
If we grow up with people of all abilities, we’ll stop being so scared of them. Difference and diversity, rather than being feared, should be celebrated.
“What The **** Is Normal” by Francecsa Martinez is out now.