Francesca appeared in the BBC children's series Grange Hill for five years, but is now an award-winning stand-up comic who has performed at the Edinburgh, Melbourne and Montreal festivals, as well as on Broadway in New York.
24th June 2003
What am I doing here, you're probably asking yourselves - I know I am. Well, actually it's all to do with the International Day for the Disabled on 3 December. A Canadian charity has organised a special conference to mark the day, and for their sins and mine they invited me over so I could bring the tone down in my own inimitable way.
I almost didn't make it onto the plane, though. At the Air Canada check-in desk at Heathrow this woman asked me the usual questions:
"Did you pack your own bags?"
I shook my head.
"Have you let them out of your sight?"
"Yeah, loads of times."
"Have you let anyone else carry them for you?"
Before she could press a button under the counter and have me surrounded by Alsatians and machine guns, I explained that I had a disability, and that I never did all my own packing or lugged my own luggage.
"Oh," she said, "I'm so sorry."
"I don't mind, " I told her. "I hate all that stuff."
Ottawa looks like a Christmas postcard at the moment, with snow and fairy lights everywhere, but the strange thing is that the most magical Christmas I ever had was spent in balmy Tenerife. The only ice in sight was chinking away in the drinks I was constantly guzzling (the soft drinks, OK?)
It must have been about six years ago. I was there with my parents and younger brother, Raoul. One day, Raoul and I had just entered the restaurant in the hotel when we noticed this man staring at us. He was in his sixties, and had a crinkly, bald head that made him look a bit like a Lex Luthor who'd let himself go. He came over to us with a big smile on his face.
"Uh-oh," we thought, "weirdo alert!" But he just smiled at us and walked past. "Phew!"
Next day it was the same story, but this time he stopped to congratulate Raoul on how well and good-humouredly he was helping me get around the hotel. He also complimented me on my big, infectious smile, and both of us on our immaculate dress sense - his words, not mine. (Although I do like to think I could give Trinny and Susannah a run for their money). There was no doubt about it - this guy was a freak. Oh, the nightmares I had that night!
But this psycho turned out to be an incredibly interesting man who entertained us all with fantastic anecdotes, including the electric moment when he saw a young actor by the name of Marlon Brando walk onto a Broadway stage for the first time. The man was called Richard Burns. He'd been a New York firefighter and had studied law in his spare time. He was also a Quaker - in those days I thought that meant anyone with cerebral palsy! Eventually he became a lawyer and ended up making a lot of money. When he retired, he put most of this into a special fund and used the rest to travel around the world. On our last night there, he asked my parents if they'd mind if he gave me a donation from his fund.
"Why me?" I asked when he spoke to me about it later.
"Two reasons, really," he said. "The first is that you're the most inspiring person I've met in Europe."
"Have you just arrived in Europe?" I joked, but deep down I have to admit it felt good to be appreciated after losing a lot of my confidence at secondary school.
"And the second reason," he went on, "is that whenever you're feeling down or low in confidence, you'll be able to think back to the day a complete stranger was so taken by you that he was moved to show you his gratitude for lighting up his life."
I know it sounds like something out of a cheesy Hollywood movie, but that's exactly what he said. Then we all watched in amazement as Richard Burns wrote me out a cheque for one thousand dollars.
Magic Christmas moment, or what?
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