When comedian Alex Brooker was hired to appear on The Last Leg he was initially put on a nine-day contract.
Which isn’t surprising. After all, the programme was only supposed to run for two weeks, alongside the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
Brooker, who was working as a sports journalist at the time, assumed that once the tournament concluded, so too would the series. But then, the team started noticing how much momentum was building around it.
“I didn’t think I’d do any more television, but when we were about four shows into The Last Leg, we went out in the Olympic Park and a huge number of people were coming up to us,” he recalls. “Josh [Widdicombe] and I went to film something and like, people were mobbing us. And it was the first time I realised that this had hit home with a lot of people.”
The programme, fronted by Brooker, Widdicombe and presenter Adam Hills, looked back at each day’s events during the Paralympics.
Crucially, it celebrated and poked fun at disability in equal measure. Brooker, who has hand and arm impairments and uses a prosthetic leg, would make as many jokes at his own expense as he would at other people’s. Hills, who was born without a right foot, would do the same.
The show became so popular that Channel 4 commissioned it for a longer run. Eight years later, it’s one of the network’s biggest hits. But having spent nearly a decade making light of his own impairments, Brooker is ready to take a slightly more serious and reflective look at his own disability.
A new BBC Two documentary, broadcast this weekend, sees the comedian ask himself questions he hasn’t addressed before, something which was prompted partly by a charity swim last year.
“When I did Sink or Swim, there was a moment in Lake Windermere where I struggled, and I felt for the first time in as many years as I can remember, that my disability was beating me,” he tells BBC News.
“I felt very disabled and I got very emotional. So I took a step back, and thought, I’m clearly not fully OK, and I have to work some stuff out about how I feel about it.
“I just wanted to do the documentary to shine a light on disability in perhaps a different way than I have done on television so far. But in a selfish way, it was about learning for myself. Getting to a stage where I felt able to talk about these feelings I’ve had over the years.”
While disability is the butt of several jokes on The Last Leg, it isn’t the sole focus. The show also features games, celebrity guests and a discussion of the week’s news. But the documentary sees the issue take centre stage.
He explores the impact it had on his family when he was growing up. He interviews Paralympic swimmer Susie Rodgers and speaks to fellow disabled football fans at Arsenal’s Disabled Supporters’ Club.
“All my conversations I’ve ever really had about being a disabled man, I’ve had on telly,” he notes. “It’s a really strange thing, and it makes you feel quite exposed. But at the same time, I really hope that the audience take something from the fact that it is so, so personal.”
The film also prompted some frank conversations with his family, which Brooker had never had before. “The conversation with my mum about what life was like when I was a kid in Great Ormond Street, that’s the first time we’ve ever [spoken about] that,” he says.
It’s his hope that the programme will have a broad appeal, and find an audience beyond other disabled people. Any increase in awareness and understanding can only be a good thing, he argues.
‘Big step forward’
Brooker and his Last Leg co-stars are often praised for flying the flag for an under-represented community. But the public’s focus has, in recent weeks, turned to other minority groups on television, sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests.
“I think we should always be trying to represent as many people as possible through television,” Brooker says.
“Okay, yeah, on The Last Leg, we are three white men, although obviously there’s a lot of diversity in the sense of our disabilities. But I would never sit there and think to myself, ‘Oh, well, we’ve got it completed, then. We don’t need to be any more diverse.’ We can’t rest on our laurels.”
Interestingly, it could be argued that any perceived lack of diversity on The Last Leg is a victory in itself, because any such criticism would mean that people no longer consider the hosts’ disabilities unusual or even notable.
“With me personally, I’m not seen as being disabled. I know that sounds like a weird thing, but I’m not really,” Brooker says. “That’s not a compliment, because I’m proud to be disabled, but what I do take from it is sometimes that means people are de-sensitised to it.
“And for the audience to see someone like me, and not be staring at my hands and actually be listening to what I’m saying, is a really big step forward. And actually people aren’t seeing it as defining me, it’s just one aspect.”
Brooker says he takes “great pride” in meeting viewers in real life who praise him for being a role model.
“Sometimes I’ve had parents speak to me, and maybe their child has been born in a similar way,” he says. “I get loads of messages, and there’s nothing better than that.”
But, he jokes: “Obviously I still wouldn’t mind a Bafta in a few weeks, when the Last Leg are nominated again! That would be neat, but that would come second to the messages I get, of course.”
This year’s Bafta TV Awards are now due to take place on 31 July. The ceremony had been scheduled for May as usual, but the coronavirus pandemic means the Academy have had to keep the nominees waiting two months longer this year.
“They have!” laughs Brooker. “And then, on the night, we have to wait for three hours to lose to Graham Norton!”
Alex Brooker: Disability and Me is broadcast on BBC Two on Sunday at 21:00 BST.