TV Director Neil Ben on how the choices you make define your future, part of our series of stories from contributors to mark the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act.
When I was 7, I remember sitting in a doctor’s consultation room in Great Ormond Street Hospital. You see, I was born with a form of Spina Bifida called Klippel Feil Syndrome, and there was a chance I could paralyse myself just by growing.
The doctor said to me… well, more precisely, he said to my parents over my head as if I wasn’t even there, “With his condition, Neil won’t be able to do much.”
At that point I had two choices; believe what I was being told, or make up my own mind. I chose the second. I decided there and then that only I could decide what I could or couldn’t do with my life. No one was going to define me.
Four years later I’m sitting in the audience at BBC Television Centre watching CRACKERJACK being recorded and that was the day I decided I was going to work in telly. But again, teachers, bless them, know best. When I told them I was going to work for the BBC they said “Oh no, television is too difficult to get into. Maths, physics, and working with computers is a better option for you Neil. You’ll get a good job with computers”.
This time I listened, but I didn’t give up on my dreams. It only took me 14 years to get into the BBC, initially using my Computer Science degree to get into their IT department. I then spent then next next two and half years doing two jobs, the one I was being paid for and a second – sitting in studios, trailing producers, answering the telephones on LIVE AND KICKING and CHILDREN IN NEED. I even wrote one of BLUE PETER’s Christmas pantomimes. Oh no I didn’t… oh yes I did!
And finally, BBC Schools Television was looking for someone with a maths background to work on a new series and as half my degree was maths the IT department loaned me to Schools TV. That was in December 1989 and I never went back.
Twenty years later, I was at the top of my game. I had directed for the BBC, Sky, Nickelodeon, Discovery, Channel 5, had recently been nominated for a BAFTA and was working as a senior producer.
And then everything fell apart. My ex wife had a breakdown and could no longer cope and I became the main carer of our two beautiful children, then a 7-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl.
I had a big decision to make, my TV career or my children. So I folded up my TV director’s chair and focussed on bringing up my kids whilst generating just enough income from corporate and training filming production to survive. It was tough, but it was the right decision.
My kids are now 15 and 17 and, as long as there is food in the fridge and money in their pockets, they are old enough to take care of themselves without out me being there 24/7. So is it time for me to get back into telly?
We all know how difficult it is to build a TV career, and it’s even harder to resurrect a career after a break. Add to that having a disability and being of an age when most people in the industry are either top level directors, commissioners or running their own production company. So how am I meant to compete with younger, fitter, hungrier directors. Well it’s simple…
Life experience! They say you learn the most when things are at their toughest, and being a single dad with a disability has been very tough, so I’ve have learned a lot. I’ve had time to grow and see things that many people haven’t even thought of and I am a better person for it. And all this means I have stories to share.
At the beginning of my career I got into telly through a most unusual route and I have no doubt I can find an unusual route back in again. All I need to do is to decide if that is what I really want. And if I do, it will happen.
Neil Ben is an award-winning writer and director who, despite taking a ten-year break from the industry to raise his children, is ready to jump back into broadcast production and re-launch his directing career.
Neil is a BBC trained, BAFTA-nominated Producer / Director and has won awards from the Royal Television Society, Japan Education Television (twice) and received an FSB for the innovative way he helps businesses use video.
He is vice-chair of Directors UK Disability working group, a Trustee of Herts Inclusive Theatre and has experience writing for and directing people with disabilities.
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