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Sound Proof: sign M for murder

by Charlie Swinbourne

10th July 2006

Whisper - well, sign it - quietly. There's a new drama coming up on BBC TWO which is packed full of suspense, passion, and is sparked off - in typical TV fashion - by a suspicious death. But there's something different about Sound Proof. The main suspect in the ensuing murder enquiry is a profoundly deaf man.
The drama begins when Chris (who is hearing) is thrown from a block of flats to his death during a party. Consequently, Dean - his deaf flatmate played by Joseph Mawle - immediately comes under suspicion, and is questioned by the police with the assistance of Penny, an interpreter.
Penny the interpreter signs to Dean
Believing in his innocence, Penny later bumps into Dean in a pub, and they embark upon an affair. However, as investigations continue, suspicions rise over Dean's guilt, which makes Penny wonder whether he may be the murderer after all.

Sound Proof is a story played out in the urban landscape, told through a mixture of signing and speech.

The director, Edmund Coulthard, says: "I wanted to create a rollercoaster thriller that takes the viewer into the experience of being deaf in a very different way."

Rather than being worked in as an issue, the deafness of the main character is used as a plot device to give this prime time drama a unique slant.

The story is almost totally played out in the facial expressions of Dean, the pivotal character, who is trying to protest his innocence in the face of ever more compelling evidence.

Playing the role of Dean was a huge technical challenge for Joseph Mawle. Although he is hard of hearing, he had never used sign language before, and learnt it especially for the role.
Dean played by Joseph Mawle
"The more I looked into it, the more I realised how different being profoundly deaf is to being hearing impaired. Signing was just one element of that," Joseph told me.

In his research, he covered every angle - quite literally. Joseph filmed an interpreter from three perspectives to get a full idea of the movement of sign. He also happily spent many an hour in London's pubs enjoying the odd pint while meeting deaf people.

"I looked at how signing deaf people reacted and observed them in different social situations. I also watched our deaf interpreter closely, especially her facial expressions."

There is one stand-out scene when Dean, frustrated at being ignored by interpretor Penny, shouts out to her in the street, in a very authentic deaf voice. There's a combination of factors which marked this scene out for me, a hearing impaired viewer. Firstly, it's rare, even on deaf shows, for an authentic deaf voice to be heard on TV, much less hear them shouting out so boldly in the street. Secondly, the scene reveals the uncomfortable truth that Penny - even as a hearing person heavily involved with a deaf person - is embarrassed when Dean is so publicly loud. But he makes his point, and wins her over.

I simply love the fact that here, a deaf person cuts loose and makes himself heard. Another thing that makes it work is that the voice sounds just right. It's deaf. However, Joseph doesn't have a markedly 'deaf' voice in real life.

"With the limited hearing I have, I listened to the way deaf people talk, and spent time with a voice coach, looking at the mechanics of the deaf voice," says Joseph. "This was the scariest part, the part that could so easily have gone wrong."

Another challenge was the script, which was originally written in plain English but had to be translated into British Sign Language before filming could begin.

Sign language has its own structure, grammar, and style, and to successfully reflect how people sign every day, Joseph and the rest of the cast spent many hours working with an interpreter, translating what was being said line by line into the shorthand language form that is BSL rather than just signing the English script word for word.
Dean and Penny hugging
The most intriguing aspect of the film is the relationship between Dean and his interpreter Penny. Now, relationships between 'terps' (as they're called) and 'deafies' (as we call ourselves) are not at all unheard of. They happen all the time.

For many, a passionate liaison between the two is a bit of a dream come true - at least, for the lonely interpreters I know of. But what makes this relationship so intriguing is that during her liaison with Dean, Penny breaks every code in the interpreter's handbook because she gets involved with her client while she's helping facilitate a police investigation. Hardly professional, indeed totally reckless.

So in real life, would Joseph recommend getting involved with a terp?

"Well, if you fancy your interpreter, and they make you laugh then why not?

"Dean and Penny both have a dark side, but they discover a passion and a closeness and find they can be open with each other, that makes them go over those barriers."

So if you're already starting to wonder whether Dean turns out to be guilty, whether Penny will lose her job as an interpreter for gross misconduct, and on top of all that, whether they'll manage to sustain love even in the shadow of murder ... you'll just have to watch Sound Proof to find out.

Sound Proof is on BBC TWO, Wed 12 Jul at 9.00pm, and repeated in Sign Zone on Tue 18 Jul at 1.25AM.

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