Interview: Nicolette Dawson

The communications officer of Lepra Health in Action describes its campaign for changes to a new film featuring Hugh Grant

Lepra: bid to change a cartoon scene
Lepra: bid to change a cartoon scene

When the animation company Aardman released a trailer for a new film that showed the arm of someone with leprosy falling off, a small charity in Colchester began a PR campaign to get it changed.

Aardman, the creators of Wallace and Gromit, was promoting The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, which is due for release on 28 March and features the voice of Hugh Grant, prompted concerns that it reinforced misconceptions about the disease.

Nicolette Dawson, communications officer at Lepra Health in Action, says organisations have spent years trying to address the ignorance and stigma surrounding leprosy that prevents some sufferers from seeking help.

"This scene in a popular film that is eagerly awaited worldwide could have undone the painstaking work that has been done," says Dawson.

Lepra began by issuing press releases calling for the scene to be amended. Its team in India raised the matter with the World Health Organisation, whose ambassador for leprosy wrote to Aardman condemning the content.

The charity kept up the pressure by emailing its supporters and tweeting an Independent journalist about the controversy.

When the newspaper ran a story headlined "Wallace and Gromit creators in leprosy row" in January, Aardman began to address the issue.

The charity then wielded the heavy artillery in the form of a Stephen Fry tweet. Fry has 3.9 million Twitter followers. Many charities ask him to take up their causes, but fortunately for Lepra, he has an interest in leprosy. His Norfolk home is not far from the charity's headquarters and he had previously attended some Lepra functions.

There was a possible downside: Fry's tweets generate enough interest to crash websites. "His secretary asked if we were sure our site could handle the response," says Dawson. "We weren't sure if it could but we thought it was better to risk it than let the opportunity pass."

Fry agreed to time his tweet shortly after the Independent article. He branded the scene a "cheap joke" and urged people to support Lepra, which created a new front page for its website dedicated solely to the issue in order to cater for the influx of traffic from Fry's Twitter page.

The story snowballed, with coverage on numerous TV stations, in newspapers and on websites. It even appeared in the US, Guatemala and India. Fry ended up having a conversation on Twitter with Gideon Defoe, who wrote the book on which the film is based and the screen adaptation.

Defoe hinted at a change in the scene and on 23 January Aardman confirmed it had "decided to change the scene out of respect and sensitivity for those who suffer from leprosy". It said the right way to proceed was to "honour the efforts made by organisations like Lepra and the World Health Organisation".

Its decision prompted another wave of coverage. Lepra received donations and huge publicity. "It shows you should not be afraid to stand up, especially in times of social media," says Dawson.

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