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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