Johnny Crescendo, Block Telethon protest

This audio description has been compiled by Colin Hambrook in December 2017. It was commissioned by Disability Arts Online on behalf of NDACA (the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive). It is read by Colin Hambrook. It is approximately 10 minutes long.

This is a black and white photo of disabled singer, songwriter and activist Johnny Crescendo, taken at a Block Telethon protest outside the London Weekend Television studios in July 1991. He is depicted playing an acoustic guitar and sitting behind a microphone attached to a stand.

The singer wears a peaked hat and a black t-shirt with the words ‘Block Telethon, Piss on Pity’ printed on it in white block letters. Behind him is a wire mesh fence in front of a car park at the entrance of the television studios. Attached to the fence are a number of handwritten placards. Above the singer two placards read ‘Apartheid Telethon’ and ‘Telethon is a pimp’.

To the right of the photo two partially concealed placards, one overlaps the other and they are both slightly out of shot, read: ‘charity segregates, rights integrate’ and ‘Employers, don’t give us charity, give us jobs’.

Angry about ITV’s charity fundraiser Telethon and the demeaning portrayal of disabled people as objects of pity, that the television show proselytised, the ‘Block Telethon’ umbrella organisation was formed by over eighty disability groups in May 1990.

The protest depicted in the photograph took place in July 1991, which was the only year that ITV did not broadcast the Telethon. There were three ITV Telethons: in 1988, 1990 and 1992. Each lasted for 27 hours, taking over the television network and all were hosted by Michael Aspel for the purpose of raising money for charity through phoned-in credit card donations.

Alan Holdsworth was one of a number of disabled activists who organised the protest outside the London Weekend Television studios. He came to prominence as a politically savvy poet and songwriter in the 1980s under the stage name of Johnny Crescendo and shared stages with punk-poet contemporaries, such as Billy Bragg, Chumbawumba and John Cooper Clark. He was founder of the Direct Action Network (DAN) – a grassroots network of disabled people who use non-violent civil disobedience as a means to fight for equality and disability rights.

Voted a disability legend by Disability Now, the singer-songwriter has been described as the Bob Dylan of the Disability Movement. His songs have changed lives and his activism has changed society, forcing the issue of Disability Rights to the attention of wider society from a time when institutionalisation and segregation of disabled people was commonplace.

As a pioneer of Disability Arts, Holdsworth created many disability-themed anthems for the Disabled People’s Movement such as Choices and Rights, Tear Down The Walls and Pride. Expressing the frustration and indignity of lives fractured from mainstream society the singer-songwriter’s repertoire of songs include ballads about people trapped in institutions, satires of the charity mentality and proud anthems of empowerment. In 1990 he coined the phrase ‘piss on pity’, as an angry riposte to the stereotypes that disabled people experience.

Choices and Rights

That’s what we gotta fight for
Choices and rights in our lives

I don’t want your benefit
I want dignity from where I sit
I want choices and rights in our lives

I don’t want you to speak for me
I got my own autonomy
I want choices and rights in our lives

 

Describing his motivation for getting involved in organising the 1991 Block Telethon campaign Holdsworth says:

“I was uncomfortable when I encountered charity events and the disabled people on them who made a profession out of being needy and helpless. Please and thank you were the best lines in their script. Passiveness and helpless was not attractive to me.

At this time I was surrounded by a different kind of cripple. They called themselves Cripps, they were proud angry and strong; they didn’t buy this bullshit and hadn’t sold their souls to the celebrity, the charity or anyone. The more I delved the more I understood that far from being benign, charities were actually holding disabled people back and even more, they were keeping us in institutions away from everyone else.

But the worst damage of all was what they were doing to our heads and our self-image and the image that everyone else had of us. Disabled people bought this image and were compliant, grateful, skilled beggars.

Non-disabled people swallowed the story and felt good to give money and keep us away. We were the heartwarming story on the local news, the first port of call for a fading superstar caught with a prostitute or a politician embezzling funds. Friends of mine in the music business who were making it told me that one of the first things a top agent told them was to ‘get a crip charity. Royalty have been doing it for years! So has Hollywood.’

The finances of charities were questionable. First the celebrities never turned up for nothing. The charities didn’t employ disabled people and who decided where the money went? Not us.

To top it all the ITV telethon was portraying disgusting images of disabled people like having grown men who had lost their limbs strip down to show their prosthesis. I can’t remember one good thing about any of the images and messages from Telethon.”

 

Elspeth Morrison who took the photograph was Editor of Disability Arts In London Magazine (DAIL) from 1987-1993 and was produced by the London Disability Arts Forum. The photograph featured in an editorial in DAIL Magazine. Morrison describes the occasion as taking place ‘Outside ITV Studios with desperately shocked and confused celebrity types walking by us!’

The Block Telethon protests were a significant victory for the Disabled People’s Movement. They gave confidence to an emerging group of disabled activists, achieving a cultural shift by getting across the message that the ’crips’ are not passive. Run and controlled by disabled people, ‘Rights Not Charity!’ was the Disability Movement’s call to arms challenging the view that charity has a central role in the provision of services for disabled people and demanding an end to discrimination.

The final day of protest was 29th July 1992 when 2000 disabled people gathered outside the LWT Studios on the South Bank to challenge negative stereotypes being fostered by Telethon. It was never broadcast on television again.

The Disability Movement continues to unveil discrimination and advocate for disability rights. One of its main tools is the Social Model of Disability, which describes ‘disability’ as society’s default position of placing physical and attitudinal barriers in front of disabled people and unnecessarily isolating and excluding disabled people from full participation in society.

This audio description was compiled using the following sources:

Disability Arts Online interview with Johnny Crescendo,

Can Do Musos,

Northumbria University: Tragic but brave or just crips with chips? Songs and their lyrics in the Disability Arts Movement in Britain by Dr Colin Cameron

The National Adapt Facebook page: The Story of Piss on Pity by Alan Holdsworth

It was commissioned as part of a series of 1000-word essays to mark the launch of NDACA, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Arts Council England.

 

Photo of Johnny Crescendo (real name Alan Holdsworth) by Elspeth Morrison