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Pride of the Square

It doesn’t get much bigger than this in soapland. A new regular character on London’s most famous square. And he’s disabled. Cathy Reay meets David Proud between scenes

David Proud tallIt seems quite surreal to call myself an actor.” David Proud laughs a little nervously. We have caught the actor – sorry, we mean, regular working guy – in a break between filming scenes on the set of a very well known television soap.

David is the first disabled actor to be offered a permanent role in EastEnders since the inception of what is now the biggest British soap opera in 1985. A role that elevates him, if he wasn’t already considered so, into professional actor territory. But he still isn’t quite used to it. “It’s weird when I’m approached in the street and people talk to me about being an actor because it’s like I can’t switch off from it,” he says.

Born with spina bifida David has been in a wheelchair all his life, but that never stopped him when he was young from dreaming about being on stage. “The first part I ever wanted to play was Tiny Tim in the school play,” he remembers. “I went up to the teacher and I said to her, ‘I want to play Tiny Tim, I was born for the part!’ and from then onwards I had such a passion for drama.”

That’s when the determination to become an actor really started. David studied drama at GCSE level and then theatre at A Level, but he never realistically thought anything would come of it. “You look at TV shows and theatre and you just think ‘it’s never going to happen for me.’”

But then he saw an advert for an open audition for a BBC wheelchair basketball drama, and his life changed. “I had played wheelchair basketball and done some drama so I thought I was pretty average at both things!

I went along to this massive sports hall full of people in wheelchairs and I kept getting invited back and the group kept getting smaller and smaller and my nerves built, then finally I was cast into one of the lead parts,” David says, with a hint of accomplishment in his voice.

And rightly so. Desperados, which aired on CBBC in 2007, was a huge step forward for television for young adults, presenting a very normal image of disabled people to its audience. David refers to it as a shining example that, logistically, having an artist or actor in a wheelchair in a cast is not an impossible thing.

Though the Cambridgeshire-born actor was highly praised for his role in the drama, some of his friends and family were sceptical that he would be able to make a career out of what they called this “acting thing”. Then he took his parents to a screening of Desperados in London and they saw how serious he was about it. “We had a meal afterwards and they said to me ‘whatever you need to do to carry on acting, do it’. It was such a nice moment,” he reflects.

That same night, David was introduced to a friend’s agent; he took her for coffee and told her his dreams. She later signed him onto her books and helped him get a bit part in the BBC drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and then a lead role in the feature film Special People.

“Special People was such a family project, it only took 13 days to film but it has done so well at film
festivals since and not just in the UK. The film has led to a lot of really nice moments of me seeing the world a bit and actually seeing what life for a disabled person might be like in a different country.”
Asked whether he would like to do more films, David says: “Small British independent films are possibly the best thing you can do as an actor. I would definitely not say no, but right now I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. Who knows where the future will go?”

The work David is referring to is, of course, his role in EastEnders, which he began shooting for last month. As an actor, getting cast in one of the biggest British television shows is a huge accomplishment.

As a disabled person, getting cast in a permanent character role in one of the biggest British television shows is a breakthrough.

David is very quick to recognise this, gushing about how it is such a “wonderful opportunity” for the fifth time in 20 minutes. He adds: “I was wondering whether a regular part in something would come up and then I got the call. It was spooky the way it all worked out.”

In EastEnders David plays Adam Best, the son of character Manda Best, and a character described by a BBC press release as snobbish and self-centred. David doesn’t agree. “The word I would use is ‘spiky’”, he says with a laugh. “He’s lovely and refreshing, not a stereotype, a very unique character. There’s lots of potential with him. He does ruffle feathers and stuff but I think the response [to him] is going to be good.”

The cast and crew have been “wonderful” too, says David, at helping him fit in. “It can be quite manic at times, but comparatively [to my previous jobs] there are a lot of people here to support and look after you. Josie Lawrence, who plays my on-screen mum Manda, is lovely, she tells me off if I’m not eating well!”

Facing the access barriers of his new job isn’t as daunting as David first anticipated either. “We haven’t tackled the height of the Queen Vic bar yet!” he laughs. “But it’s all representative, I mean, the world isn’t accessible, and it’s important that the set highlights this for my character.”

David may not be the first actor to be cast in a permanent role in a British soap (this year already has seen Kelly-Marie Stewart appear in Hollyoaks and Kitty McGeever in Emmerdale), but the popularity of EastEnders and the power of the BBC arm will have a huge influence on the way media portrays and reacts to disabled people in the future. Hopefully it will mean that more disabled people are invited on-screen rather than being pushed behind the scenes. David is very excited to be part of that change.

“To move representation of disability in the media forward is something I take a lot of pride in. It is one of those lovely bonuses of doing what I do, you feel like hopefully if you do it right you’re encouraging more disabled people to get into acting and not just increasing people’s awareness of disability,” he says.
David isn’t worried about the inevitable narrow-mindedness of some of the EastEnders audience either.

“Someone once said, ‘If you can’t laugh at yourself you’re missing the joke of the century’. You will always get some people that disagree with the majority but I don’t think it’s their opinions that would matter to me.”

It was two years ago now that David went for that coffee with his soon-to-be agent, in which he confessed his career ambitions. “I told her that my vision was to be a regular on a TV show in England…” he pauses.

“It’s wonderful that I’m sat here today, just two years later, having already achieved that.”

• David Proud will appear as Adam Best in EastEnders from November