Reading for a new part

20th May 2005 at 01:00
On the eve of Adult Learners' Week, an actor in the BBC soap EastEnders offers new insight into illiteracy. Joe Clancy reports

David Spinx inspires one of three reactions when recognised as the actor who plays the skint, work-shy and illiterate Keith Miller in the TV soap opera, EastEnders.

"Some people chuck money. Some shout 'How's your back, Keith?' And others touch me on the arm and thank me for thestoryline," he said.

"When they walk away, I think that must be another of the one in five people in the country who can't read and write properly."

He told FE Focus this week of his astonishment when he discovered the full extent of adult illiteracy in the UK while researching his part in the soap.

"At first, I couldn't believe that there are 12.1 million people in the country who have low levels of literacy. That means if you are standing in a room with ten people, it is likely that at least two will be functionally illiterate.

"I also discovered there is a lot of ignorance attached to the stigma of not being able to read and write, and that there is nothing wrong with these people other than that they have slipped through the system."

He revealed how playing Keith has been an eye-opener for him in appreciating such problems.

When talking to his children, Keith explains how much better life would have been for him if was able to read and write.

"He is not talking about financial rewards, but in his own mind. I had a tough time getting my head around that concept.

"I have been an avid reader all my life and have always got at least two books on the go. It beggars belief that there are all these people who haven't learned to read."

He said he was amazed by the strategies they use to conceal their problem.

"It is quite extraordinary the lengths people go to in order to bluff their way out of stuff.

"It is a wide conspiracy. People carry around newspapers and books, or bandage their hand so they don't have to write.

"In restaurants, they don't look at menus. When somebody else chooses something, they will simply say 'I'll have that too'. I don't know how they get through life.

"But even though they are getting away with it and getting through life OK, there is still the huge stigma attached to it. They will always feel ashamed because they have lied all their life about it.

"I am getting letters from all over the country, from people of all ages, who are overjoyed that this part of their life is being touched on in a soap."

He revealed that he has drawn on his own personal experiences in playing the role. He has a close relative and two friends who are functionally illiterate.

"All three are leading very successful lives, have families and hold down good jobs," he said. "One is a company director and another a senior manager in a successful company."

That is why, he said, he is proud to be a part of the Reading and Writing (RaW) Campaign to be launched by the BBC in October.

The RaW campaign aims to reach "intermediate and emerging readers", those with entry level three or NVQ level 1 GCSE grade D-G equivalent reading skills.

Jane Quinn, the campaign executive, said people with very low levels of literacy react better to face-to-face contact.

She added: "This is an ambitious campaign that is less about formal learning and more about getting people to take small, progressive steps towards improving their literacy."

She said there would be three phases to the campaign, with the first year focusing on raising awareness and encouraging people to assess themselves through "fun tests".

The second year will highlight RaW Passions, trying to hook people through their interests, such as the 2006 World Cup. The third year will concentrate on RaW Kids, encouraging adults to read with their children.

Kate Harwood, the new executive producer of EastEnders, said the literacy storyline was likely to run for some time, following Keith's progress and the obstacles he has to overcome.

She said: "It is something we can play with for a long time. His illiteracy is part of who he is.

"The audience know something about Keith the other characters do not know about. They are on his side.

"This inability to read and write just comes out of the character. It is what gives him depth. There are many people out there who survive but can't read and write.

"The strategies Keith uses to hide the fact he can't read are brilliant.

When he is offered a job in the Queen Vic pub, he suddenly realises there is some small component of that job that requires him to read and he cannot take it."

She said the storyline was developed as a ratings booster, not specifically to highlight illiteracy. "It doesn't happen that way. It would force the drama and just wouldn't work," she said.

"We are a good showcase for serious issues such as alcoholism, breast cancer, and domestic violence. But it has to fit in with our plans.

"If you just dramatise research, it is very dull," she said. "Any drama that leads with a message just emasculates itself. You end up making shallow, hollow, issue-driven drama."

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