of Grange Hill's strengths, especially in recent years, has been its
portrayal of illness and disability. Secondary school is tough for
anyone, so imagine what it must be like when you suffer from cerebral
Well that's exactly what Rachel Burns had to deal with.
The character appeared in Grange Hill between 1994 and 1998 and
in spite of her disability Rachel was always one of the girls.
Now Francesca Martinez, the actress who played her and who
suffers from CP in real life, is using her biting sense of humour
to carve out a new career for herself as a stand-up comedienne.
And the audiences love her!
So what is the secret of Francesca's success? Well in short, she's
never let her problems stand in her way and has spent her life wisecracking
her way through prejudice. In Bliss magazine, she spoke of her experiences.
"Whenever we went to the hospital, I was angry that everyone
spoke to Mum as if I wasn't there. So when one patronising doctor
asked if anything funny happened to me during the night, I replied;
'I grow another pair of ears and get green spots all over my head'.
He was gobsmacked. My folks sent me to a mainstream secondary school
and I didn't face any prejudice there. If anyone asked me why I shake
I'd say I'd been struck by lighting! And to anyone who asked why I
talked funny, I made out I was from an exotic country and had a strange
Francesca enjoyed fitting in at primary school, but at secondary
school bigoted classmates shunned her. "Everyone was
becoming aware of their looks and it wasn't cool to have a disabled
mate. One girl even said 'if only we were lucky enough to get a
taxi to school!'" True to form, Francesca put this individual
firmly in her place; "Well if I could walk that far, don't
you think I would?" she replied. Sadly though the taunts continued.
Even a teacher refused to recognise Francesca's limitations,
leading to a stand-off in the school canteen on one occasion.
But then, Francesca's world was to change for the better. A teacher
rang her at home to say that Grange Hill were looking for a disabled
girl to join the series - why didn't she audition? She did, and
Francesca beat off 40 other girls to star as Rachel.
||- In case you were wandering...the correct term for
my condition is sober!
- Glenn Hoddle thinks disabled people sinned in
past lives. Well I've had some great past lives. The
time when I was an axe murderer was really something!
- It's hard coping with a disabled body. You feel isolated,
unattractive, you lose all your confidence. That's why
my boyfriend goes to the gym! - Would I like to be normal?
No - the world would be a boring place if we were all
disabled. But the world Cup might be interesting - and
England might win!
- People always think that disabled people always
complain about access. I'm just the same - I want access
to drugs, I want to go into rehab like all the others.
But my illegal options to finance a drug habit would
be limited; I couldn't be a bank robbery getaway driver
- there'd be no disabled parking space.
- The other day at a party I bumped into a friend of
mine. Doesn't red wine stain?
She made friends among the cast easily, and soon viewers were stopping
Fran in the street wanting her autograph. When she left Grange Hill
in 1998, acting work dried up because no directors wanted
a disabled actress.
So how did Fran get into comedy? Well, her father wrote a film for
her in which she was to play a stand-up comedienne. Although the film
never got made, Fran enrolled on a comedy course while researching
the role. She was taught a comedy technique known as "rant and
rave", and that brought out the wit in Fran. She lampooned Glenn
Hoddle's infamous remarks about disabled people having committed
sins in past lives: "I've had some great past lives,"
she began. "The time when I was an axe murderer was really
something!" After Fran's five-minute stint the others in the
group couldn't stop laughing!
That led to greater things. After doing a few comedy gigs she was
offered a spot at The Comedy Store in London. This would
either make or break Fran's career, and there was an awkward hush
as she was helped onto the stage. Clearly people were not expecting
a disabled girl to make them laugh. But her opening line stunned
the audience: "In case you were wandering, the correct term
for my condition is...sober!" Then followed a string of observations
which won over the crowd.
Since then, Fran has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival and won Channel
4's So You Think You're Funny. She has also won the Daily Telegraph
Open Mike award for her poignant observations. So what now for the
future? "I'm hoping to get financial backing to make Dad's film.
Sometimes I can't believe how much I've achieved!"
* For more information about cerebral
palsy, call SCOPE on (020) 7619 7100. Or click here
to visit their web site.