Sign language strangles cinema

Providing for the deaf is admirable, but subtitles are a less intrusive way of communicating film

So, there I was, idling late at night in front of the telly, when on came the late film: John Schlesinger's 1967 work, Far from the Madding Crowd. Julie Christie! Terence Stamp! Alan Bates! Peter Finch! Cinematography by Nicolas Roeg! Screenplay by Frederic Raphael, which would probably then be pretty faithful to Hardy's novel! As I say, it was late, but I didn't have to get up early the next day. I was in the country myself at the time, and thought that this would be just the ticket.

And it so nearly was. But just as the dialogue started, up popped a fat little man in a highly anachronistic shirt, who started gesticulating wildly in the bottom-right-hand corner of the screen. Oh, bollocks, I thought. It's the sign-language man again.

It's not always a fat man in a red shirt. Sometimes it's a woman in a frumpy dress. Sometimes it's a woman in a plain but tasteful dress. Sometimes it's a man in a white shirt. Once, I distinctly recall, it was a man in a purple shirt. But they all had this in common: they were rendering the dialogue in sign language for the deaf, and they were completely ruining the film. (And sometimes it's not even a film they're ruining, but a piece of late-night telly hokum which would otherwise be a nice guilty pleasure.)

I have put up with this phenomenon on occasion, but never for very long; there is a limit to the length of time one can watch a film with one eye closed and one's thumb extended in an attempt to blot out the little man in the corner. For when a film has been panned and scanned to make it fit the small screen, he ends up filling rather a large percentage of the action. At one point he was covering Julie Christie's face in its entirety. I don't know about you, but I find the sight of Julie Christie's face considerably more pleasurable than that of a portly homunculus making expansive gestures, not all of which, one suspects, are capable of conveying the nuances of Thomas Hardy's words, as mediated by the cunning intelligence of Frederic Raphael. As for what Nicolas Roeg might have to say about what he was doing to his cinematography, one shudders to think.

It is, of course, laudable that an effort is being made to include the deaf in the potential audience for television. But at this cost? Please, someone, answer me this: what the hell is wrong with subtitles? Are the schedulers catering for deaf people who cannot read English? Or who cannot read, full stop? There is, I admit, a certain symmetry in trying to get the illiterate to watch a film based on a Thomas Hardy novel, as illiteracy or near-illiteracy features in more than one of them, but it is not, I suspect, a symmetry intended by the kind people at ITV2.

This is what the red button on the handset was invented for, wasn't it? For subtitles, to make them appear or disappear. So why does a fifth of the screen have to be invaded by a signer? And what makes it OK to have one appear after one in the morning, but not OK beforehand? I do not want to make life any worse for the deaf than it already is. And it is probably a desire not to do so which has prevented anyone from grumbling about this in the past. But subtitles are a time-honoured way of conveying the spoken word on the screen to those unable to comprehend it conventionally. The words are conveyed with far less distraction. So why, someone please tell me, are they not used?

Nick Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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