See Hear: Deaf television past and present

Scene from CBBC programme My Life
Image caption A new generation of signers in CBBC's My Life

In British Sign Language week See Hear's series producer, looks at the importance of television programmes made by deaf people in BSL.

To understand the long and complicated relationship deaf and hard-of-hearing people have with the moving image, we need to go all the way back to the first days of cinema.

As old-fashioned picture houses opened across the UK showing silent movies with simple "inter-title" text cards between the action, deaf people would organise outings to watch films wherever and whenever they wanted. Being entirely visual, with no spoken soundtrack, they were able to enjoy it in the same way hearing audiences did.

This golden age continued all the way into the late 1920s and early '30s. But in 1927 Al Jolson ushered in a new wave of feature films with sound and spoken dialogue. His film The Jazz Singer was the first of the "talkies", and from that point onwards, silent movies petered out and deaf people were effectively excluded from the cinema.

When TV was introduced in the UK with the first broadcast from Crystal Palace on 2 November 1936, there were no subtitles for deaf people. It wouldn't be until the 1980s that the first teletext subtitles were introduced. Television remained inaccessible for many decades.

Fast forward to the present day, and you could argue deaf people in the UK today have never had it so good when it comes to television. They have a level of parity with hearing audiences which rivals that of the old silent movie days.

The BBC offers full subtitling across all of its channels and online platforms, to a good overall standard. Most of the main terrestrial channels offer accessible signed and subtitled content too.

Deaf people feature in mainstream programmes and on mainstream channels. CBeebies has Magic Hands in which deaf presenters translate poetry into BSL. It's also produced by a part-hearing, part-deaf production company. That same company, Remark, also recently made My Life: Signing Off for CBBC, which shows what life is like for a hearing child brought up by a deaf family.

Image caption CBeebies show Magic Hands introduces BSL to a pre-school audience

So, with all this good access and programming in the mainstream, why is there still a need for deaf television made by deaf people for deaf audiences? Many deaf people will tell you that it's necessary in order to reflect and document our language, community and culture.

Independent deaf television director Ramon Woolfe argues that there are already TV channels which transmit exclusively in Gaelic and Welsh language. BSL is also recognised as a language in its own right in Britain so, he says, there should be a BSL television channel.

"I'm British, I pay for it, so I should be given my own channel," he says. "Every week my children can't access the television, leaving me having to translate into BSL what they're watching on the screen. They can't read the subtitles because the English is far too advanced for them."

There isn't a BSL channel but there are individual programmes. There is See Hear on the BBC for 32 weeks of the year, and the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT) which makes about a dozen half hours per year which can be seen on the Community Channel, Film4 and the BSL Zone website.

Image caption See Hear title sequence from the early 1980s

But deaf television isn't only for a hardcore audience of deaf signers. It's also for deaf people for whom BSL isn't a first language, and for hearing people with a personal and professional interest in the deaf language and community. With signers front and centre rather than an inset box, it gives deaf people visibility on the small screen, showing sign language as it should always be seen - in fluid motion.

Deaf television records milestones in deaf history, highlights the issues we face and above all, shines a light where other mainstream programmes very rarely venture. That's why it still matters.

You can find out more in our short history of deaf television on See Hear, airing on Wednesday 19 March at 10:30 GMT on BBC Two. See a preview here. Find out more about British Sign Language Week, which runs from 17-23 March here.

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