‘Those subtitles,” said my dad with feeling as the credits rolled, “were the best I’ve ever seen.” How my kids laughed at his funny old ways. The film my family was watching, since you ask, was To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m not sure what the subtitler got so right; I must go back and check. I must also ask the kids what tickled them, when the research suggests that kids use subtitles more than their elders. My two certainly do. “Why’s that?” I asked them. Shrug. “Dunno. Easier, I suppose.”
I am glad about this. Anything for a connection between me and them, for some sense that we people the same universe, when so much of what they bang on about is baffling. Much better: “Subtitles please, Father,” than: “Get those bloody words off the screen!”
Maybe they’re as hard of hearing as the rest of us. It wouldn’t be surprising, would it? Reading from the standard-issue old folk’s script here, have you heard the music they listen to? What a racket! Stick those great big headphones on, will you? Why do they have it on so loud? It’s not as if you can hear any of the words!
Perhaps that’s it: they want to hear the words. They love words. Words are important to them. After all, they communicate with words – by email, text, WhatsApp, WhateverElse – more than I ever did in my analogue youth. They want words, words and more words. OK, kids aren’t often to be seen absorbed reading improving books, quality newspapers or periodicals for hours on end. But, nevertheless, they seem to want words. Look at Spotify, for example, supplying scrolling lyrics for thousands of songs. I summoned up a favourite from way back. Oh to have had easy access to: “Ah-ah-aaah-ah! We come from the land of the ice and snow / From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.” Poetry.
And when it comes to television, our gripes coincide. The kids, like us, aren’t satisfied with merely seeing characters’ lips moving as they emit various sounds, some intelligible as words, others lost in the dark recesses of a sound designer’s creative fantasies. Only the other day, I was told by a sound designer that the problem wasn’t the sound design, oh no, but performers’ “method acting”.
Ironically, the march of technical progress in television sound hasn’t helped. The audio on the stuff we watch is mixed to surround you in simply fabulous sounds. Spend a fortune on your setup and you will hear the rocket you can see launching rumbling up through your buttocks via your sofa. As for what the highly paid actor playing the astronaut is saying, not so much. For that, we need subtitles.
The only other solution is to hire a sound engineer to adjust your equalisers, or whatever they’re called, minute by minute, or at least programme by programme, as the audio mix keeps changing. If I win the lottery, I’ll spend a good amount of my stash changing the life of one of the superb engineers I work with on BBC radio. They’re a reassuring presence at the best of times, so it’ll be nice to have one at home, full-time. I’ll pay them a fortune to sit in a special cubicle in my lounge, sliding their sliders and switching switches as we watch the box. Even my dad will be able to hear what is being said in To Kill a Mockingbird. My mum won’t care either way, as her love for Gregory Peck has no limit; she just wants to stare at him. But the kids will demand subtitles anyway, because kids love words, bless them.
• Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist