Disability charity criticises casting of able-bodied actor in BBC's The Elephant Man

Scope have called the decision to give the part to Charlie Heaton instead of a disabled actor a ‘missed opportunity'.

Disability charity Scope has criticised the decision to cast an able-bodied actor as Joseph Merrick in the upcoming BBC adaptation of The Elephant Man.

Stranger Things star Charlie Heaton will play the severely disfigured 19th Century figure in the programme, which is is due to be screened next year.

Scope’s head of communications Phil Talbot said: “It’s disappointing that a disabled actor has not been cast in the remake of The Elephant Man, as it’s one of the most recognisable films to portray a disabled character.

Actor John Hurt
John Hurt played Joseph Merrick in director David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man (Yui Mok/PA)

“This is a missed opportunity but sadly, a lack of diversity in the industry is nothing new.

“Disabled actors still often face huge barriers to break in to the business, not only are the roles few and far between, but castings and locations are often not accessible.

“There is a massive pool of disabled talent being overlooked.

“The creative industries should be embracing and celebrating difference and diversity, not ignoring it.”

A spokesman for the programme said: “The Elephant Man is an iconic drama that has had an important role to play in highlighting changing attitudes to disability and we are currently in the process of casting disabled actors in a variety of key roles.

“Charlie Heaton, who plays the part of Joseph Merrick, will portray his journey from a young man to his death at the age of 27.”

Born in 1862, Merrick began to develop physical deformities to his skin, face, arms and feet at five years old.

Seeking to escape a workhouse several years later, he found his way into a human oddities show in London where he was exhibited as The Elephant Man.

Actor Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper made his West End debut in a stage production of The Elephant Man in 2015 (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Dr Frederick Treves saw Merrick being exhibited in a shop and took him to the London Hospital where he lived until his death in 1890, aged 27.

His story has been screened many times, most famously in the 1980 film starring John Hurt.

Singer David Bowie and Star Wars actor Mark Hamill have also previously played Merrick.

Bradley Cooper took on the part when he made his West End theatre debut in 2015.

When his casting was announced earlier in August, Heaton said he was “extremely excited and honoured” to be given the role which he described as “a challenge for any actor”.

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