Little people get short shrift

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Canteen Worker

First Grader
Ruth Ritchie
May 12, 2007

LITTLE PEOPLE. SHORT-statured person. Midget. No, scratch midget. Dwarf. Dwarfs. Let's go with dwarfs in the interest of brevity. They're everywhere, suddenly. The dwarf column is overdue and, frankly, one I've been trying to avoid.

You try writing about people of short stature without getting into trouble. It's difficult. There are a lot of dwarfs on television; a critical, albeit small, mass and the time has come to ask why. And why aren't there any on Big Brother or It Takes Two?

Not since Fantasy Island and those immortal words "The plane, boss, the plane!" have dwarfs enjoyed such televisual prominence. As I recall nothing was ever made of Tattoo's stature in the '70s. His boss, played by Ricardo Montalban, had romantic stirrings but any such inclinations from his little friend were dismissed as if Tattoo were a child. Clearly, even Aaron Spelling couldn't work out what to do with a dwarf.

The series lasted only one season after Herve Villechaize's departure, so perhaps there was more to him than met the eye. (I can't keep apologising for the puns. They are unavoidable.)

There was a dwarf in Twin Peaks but in such a surreal landscape he didn't provide any of the typical dwarf novelty we've come to expect. Dwarfs are never inexplicably cast in an average-height person's role. Outside the Christmas pageant season, this must annoy small-statured actors everywhere. Perhaps our sideshow fascination with their challenges, their differences, prevents us from seeing past the package to the performance. Why Tattoo was short, we'll never know. In the late '70s, that little guy in a suit by a seaplane was our entree card to fantasy.

But now we know better. Don't we? David E. Kelley should win awards for best use of amputees, outcasts, Tourette's sufferers and, more recently, dwarfs. In Boston Legal Kelley pushes the boundaries, testing our political correctness against our dreadful dwarf-throwing instincts. Denny Crane's romantic entanglement with a beautiful, accomplished woman of short stature is played for huge laughs with sight gags that are pure Mel Brooks. When William Shatner and James Spader talk intimately about her in a two-shot, the joke's in the camera work. She's too short to even fit into shot, so Denny doesn't know she's there. It's edgy, uncomfortable television and a long way from Tattoo.

Nothing to see in the ads for - yawn - The Amazing Race: All-stars, until hey, was that a dwarf pole-vaulting a tree with a grimace of determination and revenge on all people of average height? Was that really her cousin shouting at her to hurry? So we watch, and wonder if we would be more or less patient in the same situation.

Last week on the E! Insider (now, there's a reason to cancel Foxtel), a heavily pregnant 60cm-tall woman and her very tall husband made the news. She looked like a swiss ball with long hair. He lifted her up jauntily by her hands - a cheerful Santa with a sack full of wife. Why are we watching? Why did they film her?

Short Stories provides an entirely different experience. Using all the correct language, with respect and honesty, the filmmakers follow the lives of four short-statured Australians. Their link: a basketball team. On Little Britain or Boston Legal, the irony of short people gravitating to basketball would be hilarious. Here their passion is serious.

So is the drama of their lives. By contrast to E! Insider, Amanda's Story shared Amanda and Damian's determined struggle to become parents. Against short odds of having a "double dose" baby who would not survive past infancy, their courage was remarkable, their tragic disappointment universal.

Not a freak show, these stories have dignity, and yet even the title acknowledges that their stories would not be told unless these people, about who we make so many assumptions, were short.

There's a very short person on Passions at three in the morning. His name is Timmy. He lives with a witch who is played by Hayley Mills's sister. Timmy becomes a doll whenever anyone but the Mills witch walks into the room. It's a very weird show. The actor who plays Timmy has since died, but we're still enjoying his finest work, some time before dawn. The good-looking brother in Passions has since moved on to play the hot gardener on Desperate Housewives. This business just isn't kind to people of short stature.

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