Then Barbara Met Alan: A charmingly anarchic disability rights biopic

Review: You’d wish Irish broadcasters had the same appetite for social upheavals

"Heart-warming" is a much-abused term but that is the only possible way to describe the delightful Then Barbara Met Alan (BBC Two, 9pm, Monday), a charmingly anarchic biopic of campaigners Barbra Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth and their struggle in the 1990s to achieve equality for the disabled in the UK. If king of the romcom Richard Curtis were to make an impassioned film about disability rights this is what it would look like.

It's an unconventional story told in an unconventional style by writers Genevieve Barr and Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). There are wonky camera angles, the fourth wall is broken enthusiastically and real news footage of Lisicki and Holdsworth's "Direct Action Network" is blended with the drama. But the catalysing component is the justifiable anger disabled people felt at being regarded by society as unfortunates for whom we should all feel sorry.

This is important social history, and you wish Irish broadcasters had the same appetite for interrogating the recent past and the upheavals that have shaped us all through the prism of scripted television. Instead, it’s just one property show after another. It’s as if they don’t quite understand what drama is for. Which is to say, that it isn’t really about entertainment.

But Then Barbara Met Alan is also a grand romance, as made clear when the couple meet at a variety evening for the disabled. She is – to quote her opening joke – a stand-up who can't stand up. He's a John Cooper Clarke-style rock 'n' roll poet and by the time they've shacked up for a supposed one-night stand they've already struck upon a chemistry that will keep them together through the many challenges that will follow.

Along with the drama, Then Barbara Met Alan also functions as a love letter to the early 1990s

With a punk rock attitude to protest, they throw themselves into the campaign for equality – and for such luxuries as bus ramps and disabled-accessible buildings – like rock stars flinging himself into the mosh-pit. However unorthodox, their confrontational strategy quickly yields results. Their first target is the ITV Telethon, a pity party which largely existed so that showbiz types could feel smug about helping those whom they deemed less fortunate.

“What’s wrong with charity?” says Lisicki when she goes on ITV to explain her objections to the Telethon. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong. It sees us as victims who need your help. We’re not f**ing useless. It’s society that’s disabling.”

They’re only getting started. Direct Action Network activists are soon chaining themselves to buses and invading the British parliament. Yet the campaign takes a toll on Barbara and Alan’s relationship – they by now have a child – as Holdsworth becomes addicted to the white heat of protest and struggles to keep a lid on his anger.

Ruth Madeley is searing as Lisiscki while Arthur Hughes captures the light and shade of Holdsworth, a man with a raging fire in his soul that at moments threatens to consume him completely. And along with the drama, Then Barbara Met Alan also functions as a love letter to the early 1990s, an era when adults were not afraid to wear tie-dye in public and indie rock served as the rollicking soundtrack to social change.

This all leads up to a heart-swelling coda where Madeley's Lisicki boards a bus via a wheelchair ramp which would not have existed without the Direction Action Network campaign. There she meets the real Barbara and they Skype Alan, now living in Philadelphia. As they do, the back of the bus is revealed to be filled with the disabled cast (Madeley has spina bifida) and their real life counterparts. As they cheer and hug, the only appropriate response is to dab away a tear.