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Meet James Martin, a young man with Down's syndrome who works in a city centre restaurant, appears regularly on radio, conducts sport interviews... and is now appearing in a BBC NI drama opposite Susan Lynch

The 27-year-old makes his television acting debut in Ups And Downs this Monday. Ivan Little finds out more about the new star

James Martin, who stars in new BBC show Ups And Downs
James Martin, who stars in new BBC show Ups And Downs
James Martin and Eoin Cleland
James in a publicity shot with Rosie Barry, Susan Lynch and Keith McErlean
Susan Lynch and Eoin Cleland

An aspiring young TV writer from Co Down has revealed that one of the most famous movie directors in the world, Steven Spielberg, sent him a good luck message as he worked on a new drama inspired by his sister who has Down's syndrome and lives in Newry.

"It came through a connection that a friend of my mother's has. Spielberg is the best of the best and I was chuffed that he took the time to wish me well," says Eoin Cleland, who by complete coincidence ended up casting Newry woman Susan Lynch in his production just after she starred in Spielberg's sci-fi movie Ready Player One.

But he says he feels just as lucky to have found a newcomer to the screen for the lead role in his one-off one-hour drama Ups And Downs.

That man is 27-year-old James Martin, who has Down's syndrome and who by chance lives just around the corner from Eoin's new home in Belfast.

Eoin says he's hoping that the new drama - part of the BBC NI New Perspectives initiative aimed at find new writing, production and acting talent - will shatter any negative attitudes that might still exist over Down's.

And James, who's the son of broadcaster and sports journalist Ivan Martin, shares Eoin's aspirations for Ups And Downs.

"I hope it's an inspiration for other people with Down's syndrome to see me on the television," he says.

Eoin, who's 35, says a lot of the central character in Ups And Downs is based on his 37-year-old sister Louise.

He explains: "I've never looked at Louise and thought she has Down's syndrome. I've only ever seen her as my sister and we are very close.

"For too long people have only written about people with Down's syndrome in dramas where they are characterised as brilliant, huggy, always happy angels or as a prop that was out of focus in the background.

"They were either really good or a burden for another character. They never come across as real personalities.

"But with my own experiences I know that Down's syndrome people are just like everyone else, with good traits and not so good traits. And I wanted to see that on screen in a road trip story, but with a gender swap so that I could have a bit of distance on it."

James has been acting since he was a teenager with Belfast-based Babosh drama group, which recommended that Eoin should see him for the role of a young man called Conal who wants his own independence and sets off on a road trip from Ballymena to Belfast in the hope of seeing a concert by Downpatrick rock band Ash.

Eoin says: "James is a tremendous actor.

"He was the first person I saw for the part of Conal and though I later went all over Northern Ireland carrying out more auditions, I didn't find anyone who was as good as James.

"I wanted someone with a bit of a swagger and the opening scene sees Conal walking down the street like a badass. And within seconds of meeting James I knew that once we put a leather jacket on him he would be our man.

"And he didn't let me down. He was really collaborative and there were times when he told me that his character wouldn't say the lines I had written for his character.

"James also clicked so well with the other actors and that rapport off-screen always comes across on-screen."

James was thrilled to be cast in the drama and though he admits he was initially nervous about filming Ups And Downs, he never had any doubts that he could make the part his own.

All through his life James has shown remarkable resilience and confidence. "Down's hasn't held me back. It's more about what you have inside rather than outside," he says.

Sadly, he has experienced cruel taunts and jibes from hard-hearted strangers but he says: "If people make fun of me or my friends it's more their loss and their problem than mine."

He has always been keen on sports and drama and for years he was a regular guest on his father's radio programmes, winning over large swathes of listeners with his infectious humour.

He's always been his dad's constant companion at Irish League football matches and in recent years he's become his assistant too, asking questions at post-march Press conferences by managers.

Recently one coach told him that he was the only interviewer who asked him sensible questions.

Eoin's sister Louise hasn't been fazed at all that she partly inspired a drama about someone with Down's syndrome. Four years ago she was in the spotlight herself in a BBC documentary about Down's.

Eoin was extremely excited that Susan Lynch agreed to take a part in Ups And Downs. "She'd just done the film with Spielberg plus Dr Who and Killing Eve, the most critically acclaimed drama on TV," he says.

"We decided to approach Susan but we really didn't think she would do it. However, the word came back that she wanted to have a chat with us.

"When we met her there were no airs and graces. And she was wonderful to work with."

James says he learnt a lot about acting from Susan, who's still in contact with him.

Eoin says that even after he finished filming his scenes James stayed on set to watch Susan and other actors at work, including his on-screen sister Rosie Barry, who stars in the children's TV show Pablo.

Eoin, who also directed Ups And Downs, adds: "On a number of occasions when James had finished his scenes for the day I told him he could go home because he must be tired. But he wanted to watch the other scenes that we were filming.

"He was studying everything that was going on all the time and Susan and the rest of the cast were happy to pass on little tips."

Susan is a fan of James, saying: "I adore him on so many levels. He is just fantastic. He's so passionate about everything and it's been an absolute pleasure to be on set with him."

And James says: "It was really good to meet gifted people like Susan. She helped me a lot. She was very open and honest with me from the start."

James, who fell in love with acting when he joined Babosh in his early teens, has taken part in a large number of theatre productions but Ups And Downs was his first taste of television acting, something he had always hoped to do.

James, an ambassador for the mental health charity Mencap, says it's vital for people with Down's syndrome to feel included in society, to be equal, more visible and to show they can act. He adds: "And it's not just about Down's. People with physical disabilities and autism can act too. I was pleased that the production team invited some of my friends from Babosh including my girlfriend Barbara to take part in a party scene in Ups And Downs."

The role of Conal involved him learning a huge number of lines but any doubts that it might be too much for him were quickly banished.

The filming schedule for Ups And Downs took him and the rest of the crew up and down the country and the shoot had to be completed in just two weeks.

The new star, who is already being recognised on the streets thanks to a trailer for Ups And Downs, says: "There were 12-hour days. It was hard work, sometimes with very early morning starts, and though the weather in November was cold I didn't feel it. I had great fun. And I made a lot of friends too. And the food on set was great."

Eoin says: "The catering was excellent and my mother-in-law would turn up with hundreds of tray bakes. The only time that James got a diva tantrum was when the Fifteens ran out!"

He smiles too when he remembers how James used to joke that he wanted a 60-foot trailer with a Jacuzzi and a sauna that Will Smith is reputed to demand for his movies.

"I had to break it to James that our budget wouldn't quite stretch that far," he adds.

Music is a crucial element within Ups And Downs. But neither James nor Eoin want to give too much away about that side of the story because it would give away the ending.

At the moment there are no plans for follow-ups to the drama. But talking to Eoin and James it's clear that they both believe there's potential for more Ups And Downs.

"I would like to think that people will wonder what happens next to James and Amanda. But we shall see," says Eoin.

James, who works in Starbucks cafe in the centre of Belfast and Scalini's restaurant in Botanic Avenue, can't say too much about it yet but he's already been cast in another TV show.

And he's hoping that Ups And Downs will open more doors for him.

The drama will initially be seen only on BBC NI but Eoin says it will then be available on the BBC i-Player.

And he's hoping that people across the water will enjoy the show too. "Derry Girls has shown that programmes which are made here can be successful in Britain. One of the things I love about Derry Girls is that all the language and everything else is unapologetically Northern Irish."

Ups And Downs, BBC One NI, Monday, 9pm

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