Joseph Merrick was born 150 years ago this August in Leicester and although he only lived 27 years, became something of a celebrity in Victorian England. His condition was not properly diagnosed during his life but he is now thought to have had combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus Syndrome. Merrick offered himself to a music hall in order to earn an income and so escape the workhouse – a social entrepreneur of his day, you could say – and although paraded and ridiculed mercilessly, he stood his ground proudly.
His notoriety was beautifully conveyed to cinema through the superb acting of John Hurt, so rightly honoured at the BAFTA Awards for his amazing 50 years in cinema and theatre, in David Lynch’s 1980 film called The Elephant Man. He gives a beautiful interview which I encourage everyone to watch.
Joseph Merrick and John Hurt – who is also a Patron of Project Harar in Ethiopia, an NGO supporting children with facial disfigurements – are dignified advocates for the rights of people with unusual-looking faces.
Sadly, in today’s culture, respect for this remarkable human being has been replaced by the use of his assumed freak show name as a term of ridicule – applied to children who look different in schools and, so far without apology, by well-known and well-paid presenters of a popular TV programme about cars (see the PS below).
My purpose here is to celebrate two Giant Men who, in their different ways, have helped to raise public awareness of the difficulties posed for those who look imperfect in this look-perfect culture. Joseph and John, I salute you!
If you’d like to add to our effort, please contact the BBC and Ofcom and add your personal complaint. We have asked for a public apology from Jeremy Clarkson on the programme and asked that the BBC works with Changing Faces again to refresh its policy on face equality.