Multiple sclerosis was introduced as a story line in top UK soap Coronation Street four months ago. That was when Johnny Connor (played by Richard Hawley) received a diagnosis of the disease. And that got me thinking about other portrayals of people with MS on film and television.
But let’s start with Cornonation Street. It’s Britain’s longest-running soap opera, first broadcast in 1960, and has never shied away from social issues. These have included drug abuse, wrongful imprisonment, and even murder.
Writing about the diagnosis on its website, the MS Society commented: “Leading up to this revelation, Connor had struggled with his balance and appeared tired and impatient. He agrees to see a doctor at the insistence of his daughter Kate (Faye Brooks), but then tries to keep his MS a secret from her and from his fiancée, Jenny Bradley (Sally Ann Matthews).”
He eventually admits the truth to his daughter but calls off his wedding to Jenny, as he doesn’t want her to feel obliged to be his caregiver.
Trainwreck, a romantic comedy with Amy Schumer, tells the story of a woman afraid of commitment who finally meets Mr. Right, played by Bill Hader.
The movie features Colin Quinn as Gordon Townsend. He is a fictional version of Schumer’s real father, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Amy was 12. In the movie, Quinn’s character has MS and struggles with complications of the disease.
Fans of the award-winning TV show The West Wing will know the main character is the, a President of the United States played by Martin Sheen. He had relapsing-remitting MS while in office. The show’s producer researched illnesses that could be debilitating but not fatal and that could be difficult to diagnose.
Sheen’s character, President Bartlet, managed to keep his symptoms under control in the public eye. But MS became a central story line when he failed to make his disease public during his election campaign.
MS story line presidential in West Wing
The West Wing’s portrayal of multiple sclerosis through Bartlet was applauded by Mike Dugan, then president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Dugan, now president emeritus, said the group was pleased the character was a world leader. The society welcomed the fact the show educated viewers about MS and made it clear the disease is not fatal. It was also pleased that Bartlet was shown as to take advantage of medical breakthroughs to treat his condition.
Dugan said: “Since fiction often becomes more real to people than fact, President Bartlet’s life with MS has potential for great good. The public will become more accepting of individuals with MS. And individuals with MS will become more accepting of themselves and their abilities to lead fulfilling lives.”
Chicago Hope was set in a hospital in Chicago. In 1995, it featured the role of an MS patient for comedian and movie star Richard Pryor, who had multiple sclerosis in real life. In the episode, Pryor played Joe Springer, a character embittered by his MS and hoping to find some kind of miracle surgery that could enable him to walk again. Needless to say, he doesn’t find what he’s looking for.
I am encouraged that film and television programme makers continue to include MS, and other illnesses, in their stories. The more publicity, the greater public awareness, the better.
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50shadesofsun.com is the personal website of Ian Franks, a Features Writer with Medical News Today. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.