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19 July 2010

By Melissa Mostyn-Thomas

Still from The Silence. Photo © Jonathan Hession, BBC Pictures

Ever since it aired on BBC One last week, Deaf Facebook users’ mobiles have been vibrating with a newsfeed carping vociferously about The Silence.

“That interpreter ought to be annihilated!” said one. “We’re not supposed to sign anymore aggghh!” quipped another. Even muggins got tetchy about the silly wrist-warmers sported by the Deaf lead character that purportedly symbolised her oppression.

Inconsistencies certainly abounded galore in the story of Amelia (Genevieve Barr), a cochlear implant user who witnesses a murder while walking the dog at night in a park, inadvertently endangering the lives of her family and particularly that of her detective uncle, Jim Edwards (cue standard, and not entirely sympathetic, histrionics by Douglas Henshall).

Especially jarring was the apparently super-sonic hearing Amelia’s CI gave her, enabling her to decipher words perfectly through walls, from behind her, and with others’ backs turned towards her, sometimes even without her processor. The girl is deaf! Read my lips: which part of that do they not understand?

Although certainly suspenseful, plot-wise the drama mini-series - basically a murder involving drugs cops who happen to lead a corruption ring being investigated by Jim, who happens to be Amelia’s uncle, and also happens to be investigating another murder previously handled by the middleman in the drugs squad who happens to have bonked the girl that Amelia saw getting killed – seemed rather generic as far as one was concerned.

The one dramatic thread that kept one watching though, night after night, was Amelia herself and the new territory she found herself in. This was a prime-time opportunity to see how she adjusted to the CI and the BSL community that she still related to.

photo of a group of actors sitting at a dining room table

Still from The Silence. Photo © Jonathan Hession, BBC Pictures

Here, with doe-like ingenuity Barr skilfully portrayed a girl under pressure to speak and ‘hear’ rather than rejoice in the bass vibrations of the nightclub, stolen kisses - oh yes, Deaf people do have love lives - and the freeflow of BSL. Shots of her silhouetted from behind, watching her family at the dinner table, distorted conversation in party scenes, and a nicely undulating camera focus in close-ups highlighted Amelia’s social isolation from her hearing environment, and her resolve to scrutinise visual and tactile detail instead.

Yet the continuous shifts of perspective in The Silence made its defining theme very uneven. Amelia’s processor signified its removal with a buzz, but when a detective circled her in the interview room about one of the drugs cops without it, his voice came across crystal-clear, at once robbing her plea for a BSL interpreter of conviction.

More irritating was the ‘signing’ that passed for BSL by many of the hearing people in Amelia’s life, notably her overbearing mother (Gina McKee) and the interpreter finally recruited by the police whose boyfriend happened to be working with – you guessed it - the middleman. How’s that for breaching professional ethics?

Artistic licence is all very well, but given the rarity of a glossy mainstream drama that explores Deaf issues, the need for authenticity surely converges with the need to grab ratings every night, even if BBC budgets and timescales are rather lacking. That deaf people lived in a silent world was another myth propagated by The Silence. I couldn’t fully relate when Amelia yelled in frustration at her mother’s attempts to force her to ‘hear’, “I want silence.” What, so she had that AND super-sonic hearing? It didn’t make sense.

Deaf reality is quite the contrary: we let our hearing aids whistle, stamp our foot to get attention, and crack glass with sudden, extra-loud guffaws. Even our BSL speaks volumes.

So I’m afraid that for us, The Silence didn’t quite make all the right noises.

Make up your own mind! Watch The Silence on BBC iplayer



20 July 2010

I think the lack of a deaf script-writer was a key problem with The Silence. The title said it all!!! Unlike previous BBC Radio 4 collaborations with Graeae there was a distinct lack of clarity around issues of deafness and disability. However I thought Genevieve Barr offered some great moments of insight into the real experience of deaf people over perceived medical-model notions of 'cure'.

Melissa Mostyn-Thomas

20 July 2010

Don't get me wrong - it's not that I think the BBC haven't tried. They do have decent standards in drama and this pretty much hit the benchmark.

Rather, I feel that if they really need to get the authenticity spot-on and in a short turnaround they could bring in a deaf scriptwriter perhaps. Nevertheless they're halfway there.


20 July 2010

I really enjoyed this series. Yes, it wasn't prefect, but it was great that the BBC hired an unknown deaf actress in the lead role when they could have hired a 'name'. I liked the scene where Amelia seeks out her deaf friends, who are drinking and having fun late at night, thereby showing that Deaf teenagers do go out and have fun.


20 July 2010

There were some unbelievable bits to this drama - especially in the build up when the mother, the aunt and the daughter are not communicating at all, in the wake of a brutal murder! But the dramatic tension and some fine acting kept me watching to through four hours of it. Apparently 5 million watched it, so they said in the Guardian - so it couldn't have been all bad. And yes they misfired in terms of some of the portrayal of the Deaf community, but wasn't it a step forward to at least have a BBC drama that challenged the notion you normally see in terms of tv representation of deaf people, for the hearing - that every young deaf person's life would be wonderful if only they could have a cochlear implant.

Caroline Cardus

19 July 2010

That was a great informative review Melissa. I heard the trailer for it on the radio today and that alone had me wondering if they'd taken licence - so sadly your review didn't surprise me there. It's so important for Deaf and Disabled reviewers to critique these things from an authentic perspective. Script writers, take note!

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