How does blind comedian Chris McCausland play the HIGNFY picture round?

By Beth Rose
BBC Access All

  • Published
Chris McCausland on the Live At The Apollo Stage

When blind comedian Chris McCausland appears on Have I Got News For You complaints often follow.

The Liverpudlian says viewers get very frustrated on his behalf and regularly turn to Twitter to vent their frustration.

"It's appalling that the BBC are still using photographs and visual jokes'," he says they tweet.

"But that's what the show is, and I want to do that show," he tells the BBC Access All podcast.

It's a refreshing take on inclusivity and accessibility that people often tie themselves in knots over. Many of the panel shows he appears on, including Would I Lie To You, rely on visual cues such as pictures, items or missing word rounds.

He says it's not a slight that they continue to play such games in his presence, it's just part of the format which he doesn't want changed just because he is visually impaired.

"I do the News Quiz on Radio Four, but I don't want Have I Got News For You to be morphed into the News Quiz just because I'm on it. They're both great shows."

The production effort behind these decisions relies on "far fewer" meetings than you might think and adjustments are made swiftly and without much fuss.

"They meet me halfway," he says of the production teams. "They change one of the rounds to an audio round or something similar."

He also lets his team mates know: "If there's something you want to tell me, describe it. And if they want to leave it in the edit, they will. And if they don't, they won't."

It's something that cropped up when he filmed the 2022 QI Christmas special, in February.

During the recording there was a visual magic trick without description.

Afterwards, QI team captain Alan Davies apologised that McCausland hadn't been accommodated.

"It's cool mate," McCausland told him. "The world is visual, it's television and not everything has to be for me."

McCausland is more "comfortable" with himself and his impairment these days, but he found it difficult when he lost his sight in his 20s, due to a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Even now, "I still have a hatred of a white stick," he says referring to learning how to use a cane.

"You think that everybody's looking at you blundering your way along and you become very self-conscious. You want to be normal, you want to be a cool 20-odd year-old and you don't feel like that."

When he started his comedy back in 2003, a hobby away from his "soul destroying" call centre job, he would gloss over being blind.

"I'd do a joke at the beginning and I literally wouldn't mention it again. I wanted them to forget that I was blind."

He says at the time he was trying to "challenge preconceptions" about blind people and the low expectations people might foist on them. "That was my clumsy way of doing it by not talking about it," he says.

But as he approaches 20 years on the comedy circuit he's beginning to appreciate the unique insight he can offer.

He's currently on a summer break from his mammoth 100-date tour, Speaky Blinder, in which he talks about his blindness more than ever. And while challenging preconceptions remains his "driving force", his approach has changed.

"I'm a big believer in achieving in the mainstream and so to be doing this tour in big venues and people paying their money to come along and watch, it's really lovely to see."

He really did "achieve in the mainstream" a few weeks ago when he and fellow comedian Lee Mack created a comedy sketch around the pitfalls of a visual world for the Bafta TV Awards. It went viral, clocking up 6m views on the BBC Facebook account alone.

The duo, who are good friends, had spent the previous Wednesday at Mack's house drinking "too many cups of coffee" thinking up a sketch. They started playing around with who would say what and when McCausland can't see an autocue and the farce of the situation made them both laugh.

"We thought: 'This is the one'. We wanted to do something a bit riskier."

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It seemed "hilarious" on the Wednesday but by the Sunday, when they were backstage at the awards, they were beginning to wonder if they'd made a terrible mistake and were about to offend the entire nation.

"We'd never tried it in front of people and we were doing it on live TV in front of everybody that could ever give us a job in the TV industry. It was a bit of a gamble."

It opens with McCausland telling the celebrity-filled audience that it's the first time a blind person has presented at the Baftas, "so Lee is going to tell me my bits from the autocue," and so follows a skit of crossed-wires, repeating each other's line and culminates with McCausland saying: "So let's take a look, apparently, or a listen, I suppose.." at the nominations.

Their gamble paid off and it turned out to be the standout moment of the night.

The joke was also popular with the blind community who laughed because it was so close to the truth.

"If you strip the jokes out of it, then it is just the normal things that people would say," Chris says, alluding to the sometimes clumsy way sighted people might try to be helpful.

But life as a comedian, which has included hosting the BBC's prestigious Live At The Apollo show three times and appearing at the Royal Variety Performance, could have turned out very differently.

McCausland graduated with a degree in software engineering in 2000, but found it difficult to get a job in an industry which was yet to get to grips with accessibility.

Image source, Getty Images

He started applying for "mad stuff", including MI5 and made it to the final 30 applicants - "I was in the top 1% of potential spies. It's astonishing."

He says "discrimination" ultimately held him back from being a spook, but there was one occasion of discrimination which he was, ironically, pleased about and "wholeheartedly" believes in.

During an assessment day he was asked to sift information to identify potential threats within a limited time. In most other professions it's a task he would request a reasonable adjustment for - such as having more time to complete it.

"But you can't have Waterloo blowing up and then them going, 'well, this guy needed extra time' can you? There are certain things where you go, 'thank God someone's had the guts to stand up and go, 'this bloke can't do this…'.

There were also concerns that he might not blend in if he was on a mission to meet an informant to trade information with them.

"What's more undercover than a blind bloke meeting his mate in the pub for a pint?'," McCausland asked.

"Good point," the assessor replied and wrote something down.

"I've always loved to think, to this day, that he just wrote down 'employ more blind people'."

You can listen to the podcast and find information and support on the Access All page

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