Our Legal Director Mick Laffey, from our Medical Negligence and Serious Injury Team, concludes his story (for now) of spinal injury and how at the age of 19 he was diagnosed with a rare condition called AVM and had to begin using a wheelchair.
He’s been sharing his emotional journey, as well as his practical journey, in the hope that it might be of help to those just starting to manage their own life with a spinal injury.
Mick’s final instalment involves a manbag, Ken Loach and a glass half full…
Being flattened out of the blue by a totally unexpected issue aged just 19 was a blow. But there are people I know who have had it far, far worse than me.
Apologies for sounding so dramatic but some of my school friends have had terrible illnesses. Some have even died. I think about them a lot. Even those who have recovered had to go through experiences far worse than me. What must it be like to be lying in a hospital bed for hours thinking that you are finished? I never had that at least. I appreciate that I’m still here, living ostensibly the same life as I may have been living had I not had my little problem. A lot of this is to do with glass half full versus glass half empty. Yes, in some ways, I’ve been unlucky in the lottery of life – but I could have been much, much more unlucky, as some of my friends have been. I’ve also had some episodes of good luck too, so it’s not all bad by any means!
As such, and I know I bang on about this a lot, it’s about trying as best as possible to keep a positive mental attitude. I don’t always succeed myself to be fair, but I try.
I like to think of life as being like a game of poker. Some people seem to be dealt a great hand, and others a far poorer one. I feel as though I’ve been dealt the two of clubs and the eight of spades. Then again, and as all poker players will tell you, it depends on how you play your cards and how you play your opponents. Every now and again, if played at the right time, a hand as useless as mine can win, even against someone holding two aces. I apologise for sounding so preachy – I’m just trying to say that making the best of what you have is preferable – if you can do it – to complaining about what you have lost or what others have that you do not as it will just eat you up. Sometimes I do moan on a bit to be honest though, but who wouldn’t? And remember, at least I have some cards. Others don’t.
I like to do things that are a challenge. Things that other people might think I would not be able to do.
The idea behind listing what follows is just to show people with similar problems that it is possible, even with extremely limited talent like me. In some ways being in a chair could even be an advantage.
I apologise for the length of this last episode…
I’ve already talked about my Blind Date experience. There are others.
In 2006 I auditioned for “The Apprentice” for a laugh. Throughout the tortuous audition process I explained that, as a solicitor, I sold my knowledge – which was a difficult thing to sell – and they were very interested in me. I had a bit of a nightmare and didn’t do very well at the final audition in London. On another day things may have been different but that’s life. I watched the show when it came out and recognised two people from my audition group who did get through to the show. One of them was a nice Scottish chap and the other was a young lady called Katie Hopkins. I wonder what happened to them?
In 2015 I auditioned for a new film being shot in Newcastle by legendary British filmmaker Ken Loach. As a volunteer at a local non-league football team, we received an invite (by email) to audition as extras in a new film called “I Daniel Blake” that was due out the next year. Realising this wasn’t bogus the committee, including myself, were met by a researcher at one of our meetings. She watched how we interacted at our regular football meeting and spoke to us all individually. She said they’d be in touch in a few weeks.
True to her word, I was at home when I received a call asking if the four of us from the committee would like to meet Ken Loach the next day in Newcastle. The answer was “Yes” of course.
The other three lads, including my dad Billy, and myself then had the real pleasure of meeting Ken Loach himself the next day. He spoke with us for about 30 minutes and was really interested in our stories and what we did. Having explained that I was a solicitor and that I’d worked in the past for a firm that specialised in representing trade union members, they said they’d be in touch again.
A few weeks later I received another call asking if I could get to the same venue in Newcastle the next day at 11:15am as they “wanted to try something with me”. I said I could and, taking an early lunch, I popped round the corner as requested.
I was shown into a corridor. There were a long line of seats against the wall. At the end sat one chap on his own. I rolled down the corridor and parked next to him.
He immediately asked which agency I was with. I said I didn’t have an agent and he looked shocked. Another chap then appeared and sat down the other side of me. The first chap asked this newcomer which agency he was with. He told him and the newcomer explained that he was with a different agency. Both knew each other’s agencies but the newcomer was equally as aghast as the first chap when he realised, I didn’t have an agent. Before long the corridor filled up with a load of men, all of whom had one agent or another, except me.
A young lady then appeared. She explained that she was an actress and had just filmed a Vera – which everyone was impressed with. She was also keen to know all about people agencies.
A man with a clipboard appeared and asked if the actress could come through. And asked for Michael Laffey as well. So I rolled on over and through the door into the room.
Inside I saw Ken Loach who asked how my football team were getting on. He really likes football I discovered. Also present, but unknown to me, were several senior figures from the production team including the casting director.
Ken asked me to imagine I was a welfare rights officer. He said that I was representing a woman who had just bought a brand-new iPhone which was all singing and all dancing but very expensive. She simply couldn’t afford it and wanted me to take it back to the phone shop to persuade them to cancel the contract. He told the female actor that she was to be the shopkeeper and she was to reject my requests and explain that she had signed a contract. He then said “go”.
I immediately started representing this imaginary client and argued politely as I could with my counterpart. After about five minutes of to-ing and fro-ing Ken asked us to stop and laughed, saying that he knew where to go if he ever had any problems with his phone.
And so we left and I walked back round to the office and got back to work. I’d only been gone for just over an hour.
I wondered what would happen next. I had felt good vibes from this audition, but as a complete novice to that game I had no idea what the process was and thought that one or ten of the proper actors would impress him more.
Again. A few weeks later, on a Friday night, the phone rang as I was getting ready to go to the local club with my dad.
The caller explained that she was a producer and offered me the role as a Welfare Benefits Officer in the film. Then and there. It was as simple as that.
She asked if I would do it, explaining that it was a paid role of course.
I said that I would love to and I’d do it for free! She said that wouldn’t be necessary and laughing, said she’d send my contract out in the post. I wondered if the fact I was in a chair was actually an advantage or whether it made no difference at all. I very much doubt the part had been written to be played by a wheelchair user. What Ken and his team were probably wanting was authenticity, so who better to play a Geordie lawyer than an actual Geordie lawyer? And the fact I was in a chair? So what?
I was told to expect a call from wardrobe. They called and explained that I was supposed to look a bit down at heel, but professional. They asked what size I was so they could get me a few suits to try. I said I’d just wear one of my own suits. They laughed and said that my suits would probably be too good for their purposes. I disagreed and said I’d come dressed for the part. To be clear, everything I wore on screen was my own and is exactly as I looked on a day to day basis at work, even down to the manbag I was using and my DMA (Durham Miners Association) pen, given to me personally by either Davey Hopper or Stan Pearce (as I have two and I’m not sure which is which now) from that illustrious organisation. I was pleased that they thought I normally looked “down at heel” enough and generally fitted their brief. That was how I normally looked at work. It was good to know they thought I rocked the “down at heel” look.
When the filming started the local TV made a big fuss about it and showed the cast and crew on set in the city.
Ken Loach is a master of his craft but films in an unusual way. He literally films in order – which means going back and forwards from site to site, in case anything changes as he goes. As I watched them film on TV I wondered if they’d forgotten about me as I had no idea what I needed to do or when or where I needed to be.
They called me one day – to ask if my dad and the lads would like to be extras. I asked what they wanted them to do. I was told they wanted “lads to shout at the Police”. I said I thought my dad and the lads would be ideal for that and they were asked to be at a location in Newcastle the next day. I went along to watch what was going on during my lunch hour. I stayed well back as I didn’t want to be seen. You know the bit where the main character sprays “I Daniel Blake….” On the wall? That’s the scene my dad and the lads were in – telling the Police to leave him alone etc.
Eventually I received an email, again on a Friday night, with four pages of script. That was all. I was asked to be at an office in Newcastle at 11am the following Tuesday.
That meant I had four days to learn my lines and, not having a clue what else to do, I parrot fashioned learned them all, asking my wife to play all of the other parts.
Tuesday came around and I turned up hugely early as I was so excited and wanted to make sure I got a parking space. Fortunately, using my Blue Badge, I was able to park right outside and having waited in my car until 10:45, I wheeled over and was shown into a room. There were a few others there and our ranks swelled until the room was quite full of a range of people. Eventually everyone was given a form to complete, except me. I asked where mine was to which I was told “Oh you don’t need one Mick – this is just for the extras – you’ve got a contract” to which every neck in the room swished round to look at me. Wow I thought.
Once everyone had been settled in, we noted that a catering company was setting up a load of hot food. When they’d finished, the cast and crew arrived from the day’s earlier filming, including the main actors and Ken Loach. Everyone was allowed to eat and have lunch. Then we were taken upstairs and shown into a room which was set up to look like the waiting room of a tribunal. The office was in a disused office block and really looked the part.
I was kind of expecting to sit round a big table and to do a read through with the other actors. Oh no, that’s not how Mr Loach works.
Having had literally no rehearsals at all I was thrown straight into it. In came Dave Johns and Hayley Squires and the cameras rolled immediately as filming began! They filmed us doing the scene four times from one angle, four times from another and so on. In the end we must have filmed the scene 20 times from various angles and that was it. We were done.
The crew then finished for the day as it was dark outside, not that you’d know it as they had special lights up on the outside of the office block which made it look like it was wholly filmed in daylight. By the end it wasn’t and I was shown another part of the film world – as I looked at one window to see daylight and out of another on the other side to see that it was night time – at the same time. That was weird.
The crew moved on and filming wrapped up. I heard no more for a while. Eventually I was called by the production team one day about something and I asked when the premiere was likely to be. They said it was to be at the Cannes film festival in May 2016. I asked if I could go to that and, to my surprise, Ken said that I could. What a legend that guy is.
I was told to make my way to Cannes the day of the screening and to check in with his production team when I arrived.
After a long, tortuous, and exceptionally expensive, journey involving planes, trains and automobiles (both coaches and taxis) dad and I finally made it to the hotel and emailed Ken’s assistant. We were told to be at a very posh hotel on the “Boulevard de la Croisette” (the main promenade) at 7pm.
Having had a swift livener at a café/bar beneath our hotel, we turned up in a taxi in our tuxedos and were met at reception by a member of the hotel’s staff. The front of the hotel was literally being besieged by crowds of people and journalists. It was really exceptional.
We were taken through the hotel into an area at the back, most of which was outside. It was a stunning room. Even more stunning was the sight of over a hundred people truly hammered out (a Geordie expression for exceptionally well dressed) in ball gowns and tuxedos.
As I rolled through the door, dad asked me “do you recognise anyone”, perhaps checking we were in the right place as we were well and truly fish out of water.
I said that I didn’t – but that I could see the bar – and towards it we rolled. Having reached the bar without being noticed, the barman asked if we’d like some champagne. Being uncouth peasants, we asked if they had any lager. He laughed and looked in a fridge. He produced a few bottles of Duvel – which looked good to us.
So we had a few of them. A chap came over and said to me “I know who you are!” and walked off. Another lad came over and, laughing, said “that’s the editor – he always does that!”. Obviously despite having never met me, this chap had had to sit though – and edit – hours worth of footage, with me in it. He was probably sick of the sight of me despite never having set eyes on me so I thought that was funny.
Some Scottish lads, wearing kilts of course, came over to speak to us. They explained that they were the writer Paul Laverty’s brothers and that they were over with him. They were great lads and we stuck with them. A production assistant came over and gave us a few tickets. One was for the film itself and the other was for the post film party at a restaurant further along the Croisette after the showing. She explained that there was not enough room in the cars and that we needed to make our own way along to the “Palais des Festivals et des Congres” as they called it. Or “the pictures” as we called it.
We were happy to do so and booled along the road for half a mile, joining a long queue when we arrived. We asked if the queue was for “I Daniel Blake” and were told it was.
We waited in the queue for almost half an hour without it really moving forward. I looked at my watch and was becoming concerned that we would not be in by the time the cars arrived. We knew that was to be around 9pm. I got my tickets out of my pocket and showed them to the people in the queue around us saying “Are we in the right place”?
Like that scene out of Charlie and the Chocolate factory when Charlie finds the golden ticket, the others in the queue looked at our tickets, looked at us again, looked back at our tickets and laughed.
They all pointed over to a door with a security guard on either side and ushered us in that direction.
Me and dad rolled over to the door and showed our tickets to the chaps on the door who also looked at us a bit funny, but let us in. We went through the door and found ourselves straight on the red carpet. The actual red carpet.
We couldn’t believe it. There was just us. Two lads from Hebburn wandering around the red carpet at a film premiere in Cannes. The carpet extended to a large set of stairs at the end – which I thought would be a problem in very early course…
As we wandered about trying not to look totally out of place, one of the security guards from earlier came over to ask us to “get off the carpet as the cars were coming”. He looked very professional and was certainly not someone to be messed with. He had an earpiece in for a start.
I explained that he need not worry as we were “dans le film” but he moved us off to the side anyway, right at the front of the red carpet, near to the road. The guard stood right behind us, apparently still unconvinced of our authenticity.
Moments later three police outriders came down the street ahead of a convoy of black limousines. They pulled up in front of us and the first of the black limos stopped right on the red carpet.
The cars were all French – but unlike anything I’d seen before. They were huge, gleaming stretched Renaults and Citroens They looked great – like Audi A8’s or Mercedes S class’s – but they were clearly French. I got the impression the French were pleased that the cars were all French.
Ken Loach got out of this first limo to, what I can only describe, as “Loachmania”. Cameras were flashing all over the place. Everyone was shouting “Ken!” in foreign accents. Ken walked round the car and opened the passenger door for his wife and the pair of them stood there taking the applause. It was surreal as this was all taking place yards from where me and my dad were.
The security guy was still right beside us, I think he was scared that we’d “do something” and he appeared to be in full scale “protection mode”.
As we stood there Ken looked over. He saw me and my dad and smiled. I hadn’t even seen him at the party earlier as he was so busy but he gestured to us and walked over to where we were. He said “Mick! Bill!! H Hi, thanks for coming!” and shook our hands, pulling us onto the carpet.
The security guy melted away and the four of us were the only ones on the red carpet. Me, dad and Mr and Mrs Loach. It was unreal.
Another car arrived containing Davey Johns and Hayley Squires so we stood back and let them make their entrance. Again it went crazy for them. Car after car deposited the rest of the cast and crew and before long there was about 60 of us on the red carpet milling about.
I then realised I was going to have to – somehow – ascend a flight of stairs. Dad spoke to the aforementioned security guy who understood immediately and, now accepting we were part of the show, told us to follow him.
We went round the back and used – the bin lift – to gain access to the upper levels. As a wheelchair user you get used to stinky bin lifts. Believe me.
This didn’t entirely burst my bubble however, as we could now look down the steps at everything going on below. I can remember that being when “imposter syndrome” properly kicked in. Me and dad were just laughing at how surreal it was, and how we really did not deserve to be in such an environment. It was unreal, especially when Jean Michel Jarre turned up!
I could not believe it. I loved his work such as Rendezvous IV, Equinoxe and Oxygene – and there he was. I said to my dad “Look! Its John Michael from Jarrow!!” but, not for the first time, my humour was lost on him.
In a quite funny episode thereafter, another security guard came over and said that we’d have to move as you “weren’t allowed out onto that area”. In an ironic twist of fate the original security guard from downstairs explained that we very much could and the other guards just left us alone looking down at the main cast and crew being photographed. Again, ironically, I have a photo from that very moment as the picture of the five main participants in the film standing there on the steps contains, in the top right hand corner, a guy in a wheelchair sitting looking down on them. I have that photo to this day.
Watching yourself on a huge screen in a theatre packing with 2,400 people in ball gowns and tuxedos is, in itself, surreal. It was truly bizarre. Especially as we were all subtitled in French AND English. I loved the fact that our accents were deemed so strong that we had to be subtitled in our own language.
At the end of the film, when the credits came up, I tried to photograph my name but my hand was shaking so much that it came out all blurry.
As the titles rolled and we left Paul Laverty – the writer – asked me what I thought. I told him I loved it and thanked him. I said that I thought the scene in the foodbank was particularly unsettling. Yes” he said. “That was the point” laughing. The atmosphere was absolutely triumphant. The cast and crew were being mobbed. People even recognised who I was and shook my hands saying that I was “Tres bon”, whatever that means.
As we walked back along the promenade to the hotel for the party, being stopped for handshakes, high fives and pats on the back, me and dad just laughed. When the film won a BAFTA and the Palme D’Or we couldn’t believe it. It was an amazing experience. I can’t tell you how proud I was of Ken, Paul and Rebecca (the Producer) who were all fantastic and deserve every bit of credit and praise they get. I’ll never get to experience that again, but it doesn’t matter as I’ll never forget it. There’s much more to say about I Daniel Blake but I’ve been going on about it for too long. There are other stories to tell…
Throughout all of this one of my main hobbies has been appearing on TV gameshows. My friends and I had been on Quiz Night as the “Mill Tavern” in 1992 with host Ted Robbins. He played Den Perry in Phoenix Nights and was great fun. We won our first game but were acknowledged as one of the worst teams ever by the crew as we were only 21 or 22 and outclassed by some serious nerds from around the country. That was a great laugh however, as we were put up in a hotel in Manchester for three nights all expenses paid.
I want to state all of this to show you that you could do it too post injury. Why not?
It’s not about how much you know it’s about how you present, and I think being in a chair helps you as it must tick a few diversity boxes, harsh though that may sound.
I started my gameshow run on Goldenballs with Jasper Carrott upon which I won £11,150 in 2010 I think. I had to be escorted from the premises afterwards and bumped into a chap smoking a cigarette outside the BBC television centre. He looked a bit striking and when I got closer I recognised him as Boy George in full regalia. My wife and I had our photo taken with him. He asked what we were doing and I explained I’d been filming the show. He said he liked the show and that he’d watch out for me (!?). I told him he was a bit of a legend – which he most certainly is.
I then went on The Chase in 2011. I got through to the final with one young lady who was excellent. We got 23 points between us and I was feeling pretty confident. Tragically Mark Labbett was living up to his nickname of “the Beast” as he caught us with six seconds remaining in what he said was a very satisfying chase. He admitted it was one of the highest scores they had ever caught. That didn’t make us feel any better as we would have preferred to share the £19,000 jackpot.
I remember auditioning for that show and telling them how I wanted to face Anne Hegarty as I thought she was great. All the way through the process I stuck to this line. When we got to the studio to film the show, the four contestants sat in a room when a producer said that they wanted me to go first. When asked why, they said it was because I told them how much I liked Anne and how Bradley Walsh would love that.
And so the time came for me to film the show. Bradley asked me who I’d like the chaser to be and I said “Anne!!” explaining how I thought she was great. He couldn’t believe it and set up the entrance for…. Mr Labbett. I looked crestfallen when he turned up and the Chaser seized upon this saying that “he was better than Anne anyway!”
I said “yes, but you aren’t as good looking” – which prompted the anticipated response from both Bradley Walsh and Mark Labbett who were not of the same mind as me.
What I didn’t realise is that Anne Hegarty was in the audience and she came over afterwards and gave me a big cuddle! I have the photograph to this day, as well as one with the other contestants and Mark Labbett who was very nice after the show and told me how chuffed he was that he’d caught us. They really do take it seriously and to be fair to him, it was an amazing performance.
After a short retirement I appeared on Who Dares Wins with Nick Knowles in 2018 winning two jackpots and taking home half of £20,000. That was fun.
I then won on Tipping Point in 2020, winning the jackpot of £10,000 and high fiving the host Ben Shephard. I explained how I’d take the kids to a “well known theme park in the greater Orlando area” which I eventually did, post Covid, in 2022.
I then appeared on Pointless with my friend Mark in 2023 – getting through to the final first time and losing out in the final round by one single point. Still got the trophy though! It sits on my desk at work to this day.
There’s other stuff too – all done whilst sitting down.
Having realised that I’d need to do something I could do “whilst sitting down” I am glad I became a solicitor. I qualified in 1996 and I have spent virtually all the time since representing people injured in accidents. I started on smaller matters of course, but have moved on and upwards so I now deal with catastrophic cases for people badly injured in accidents.
As I always say – you really don’t want me to be your solicitor! But if I am I’ll do what I can to help!
I am lucky to work for a really top class and progressive firm, recognised in the Legal 500 and with Chambers (i.e. the industry awards) as a top tier firm.
If you’re lying there in a hospital bed now and you’re wondering if you have a claim, give me a call at Burnetts on 0191 300 1833 – I’ll happily chat though what I can do to help you and/or your family.
It’s what I do – it’s not a problem. Apologies for the advert but dealing with seriously injured people is all I do.
I get it.
And that’s the end of my blog. I hope that this has helped someone lying there in a hospital after an injury thinking that it’s all over for them.
It isn’t and it wasn’t for me. That’s all I’m trying to show.
I’m nothing special at all – so if I can do stuff – you can. I really mean that.
Never give up.
Thank you for reading this.
15th May 2023.