Interview Luke Hamill: People don't need to feel sorry for me because I can't walk .. it's not a big deal Oct 3 2003


By Jill Foster

IS The Bill's newest recruit Luke Hamill going to do the London Marathon? It wasn't even on my list of questions to ask but apparently this puts me in the minority.

"I'm surprised you haven't mentioned it yet," smiles the 31-year-old actor who joined Sun Hill two weeks ago. "I get asked that all the time."

"People in the street shout it every other day. Only last night a bloke at the train station yelled across the platform to me. I don't get angry about it, I think it's funny.

"It is the most common question wheelchair users are asked. I suppose it's because the only time you ever see a real wheelchair-user on mainstream TV is during the London Marathon."

That changed when Luke made his debut on the popular ITV drama.

He plays Dean McVerry, a civilian police worker and lad-about-town who just happens to be in a wheelchair.

"I think The Bill has got a very good scoop," he says. "In soaps or dramas, what usually happens is a regular character gets injured, he's put in a wheelchair and gets all depressed and then he makes a miraculous recovery.

"I remember on Hollioaks, the character in a wheelchair wanted to throw himself off a balcony after his accident.

"I thought 'That's bull***t, life's not like that. That's why I love what The Bill is doing, it's not making a big deal. No one makes a fuss if a person is black or Chinese so why make a fuss if you are in a wheelchair?"

It's obvious Luke is not a fan of fuss. He has several options as to where we can meet and chooses a bar near the Daily Mirror's office in London's Docklands.

It's a two-minute walk for me and a train journey for him. "I thought it would be easier," he says.

It is 13 years since a learner driver smashed into the side of his car as he was driving through his home village of Englefield Green, near Windsor.

Luke, then 18, was rushed to hospital with head, spine and rib injuries and was critically ill for four weeks.

He has no memory of the crash but talks about the repercussions with a stoicism able-bodied people might find hard to imagine were they in the same position.

"It was just bad luck," he shrugs. "It didn't change my life as much as you might think.

"It sounds fickle and of course it was a challenge but I was surrounded by guys of my own age - the most common age for a spinal cord injury is 18 - and we got through it together. "I don't remember the moment I was told I was paralysed. My short-term memory was affected by the crash so although I could remember things like my parent's names, I couldn't recall if they had visited me that afternoon.

"Not being able to walk was more a gradual realisation than a single dramatic moment. But it wasn't a morose feeling, definitely not.

"The toughest time was coming home and getting used to your own house not being accessible to you.

"It was frustrating not having much to do in the six months between getting home and starting uni. Every time I got itchy about it I would go for a wheel in the park or a swim.

"I'm not sure how my family coped. I'm really close to my parents and my brother Paul and it must have been worse for them than it was for me because the thought of disability is actually worse than the reality."

After a month in intensive care recovering from life-threatening injuries, he underwent five months of rehabilitation at Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital.

"The hospital is fantastic," he says. "I don't keep in touch with anyone from there but when I go back for check-ups I often see people I recognise.

"I saw one of my favourite nurses last time and it's like seeing a favourite teacher from school. Very weird.

"I wrote to my consultant Mr Bailey when he retired last year and told him I barely ever feel 'disabled' and a large part of that I credit to the care I received at the hospital."

You imagine only time can have healed his resentment towards the woman who crashed into him, especially when he reveals it was her first time on the road and she had no insurance or provisional licence. She did not even lose her licence as a result.

But he insists he never wasted his time getting angry.

"I never met her," he says. "I had no face to pour anger on so what was the point? I didn't worry about it.

EVERYONE always thinks that if you are in a wheelchair everyone should feel sorry for you. But it's not a big deal. I don't look disabled when I'm not in the chair.

"If you look at me sitting here you'd never know. It's a very visible disability when you're in the chair but it doesn't really affect you that much.

"Say there are a million things you can do in the world. There's only 1,000 of those which I can't do because I am in a wheelchair."

He leads the kind of life which puts most of us to shame. He regularly swims, water-skis, plays basketball with his team the Wasps, goes to the gym, attends drama classes.

"That's why I don't like the term wheelchair bound" he says. "It implies I am strapped into it when, in fact, I only use it for getting from A to B.

"The trouble with being in a wheelchair is you're almost like public property.

"It's as if people own you. People often say 'What happened to you?' It's quite bizarre that a complete stranger thinks they can come up to me without saying hello and ask me what happened. How do you answer that without looking like you've got an attitude?"

Half-way through the interview he breaks off to speak fluent Portuguese with the waiter who comes over to shake his hand.

"An ex-girlfriend of mine used to run this place," explains Luke. "I lived with her for a while in Brazil."

He is in the throes of a new relationship and goes all shy when I ask what her name is.

"Yeah, I've been seeing someone," he smiles. "It's early days so I don't want to say too much."

None of his previous girlfriends has been wheelchair users, something he says doesn't matter to him.

"Being in a wheelchair doesn't make that much difference when it comes to meeting women.

"Some aren't interested in me but I don't think that's a wheelchair thing. Not everyone fancies the same people.

"That worried me when it first happened. I was a young man of 18. But that all flew out of the window as soon as I went to university. I suppose I did get lucky a few times," he says.

"To be honest, I often get more attention from women than my mates. I've got some friends who don't want to go out with me any more because I take the attention away from them.

"As for having a family, I'm quite logical about it. Probably when I'm older I'll settle down but it's all about meeting the right person.

"I want to do more travelling and more languages. I was never particularly good at them at school but I enjoy them now." For the moment he plans to enjoy his six-month contract with one of the most popular shows on TV.

"It's amazing to be a part of The Bill," he says. "When I saw everyone for the first few times I wanted to say hello because I thought I knew them already. They're a nice bunch of people. I love doing scenes with Roberta Taylor, who plays Inspector Gina Gold.

"My first day on set was quite hard because I had very bad jetlag. I'd just got back from the States and I overslept by 16 hours.

"As a result I had a splitting migraine but that may have aided the performance because I was supposed to be hungover.

"I was very, very nervous about seeing myself in the first episode. My family and friends all came round to my local to watch it with me as it was also my birthday."

The thought he may be leading a one-man campaign to get more wheelchair users on screen makes him cringe.

"Maybe casting directors haven't got much choice," he offers. "I know I'm not suitable for some roles but it would be great to get the chance to at least audition.

"I've got a lot of friends in wheelchairs who are not even consulted when a role such as something in The Book Group comes up but perhaps casting directors don't know where to find us.

"Acting isn't something I planned to do but I really love it. I'd love to do more films in the future. There are loads of actors and directors I'd love to work with.

"But I don't want to rush things. Right now I'm having a lot of fun."