Review: The Silence

The BBC has advanced disability equality by casting a deaf actress in a leading primetime role, writes Emma Harrison

Review: The Silence


There’s no doubt last week’s BBC psychological thriller The Silence has broken new ground. For the first time on primetime TV, a deaf actress Genevieve Barr, 23, played the starring role as 18-year-old adolescent Amelia, who sees a murder and then brings the killers to justice by helping in the police investigation led, in a quirk of fate, by her uncle (played by Douglas Henshall).

To complicate matters, Amelia’s struggling with a recently fitted cochlear implant and, as one critic rightly says, “has a difficult relationship with the outside world”, including her hearing parents.

The reviews by the hearing and deaf communities have been mixed.

The national newspapers were all complimentary to Barr, with one writer calling her performance “mesmerising”.

Others complained that the plotline stretched our imagination to breaking point and the characterisation of a deaf teenager was hardly complimentary. One critic wrote: “It’s the treatment of Amelia’s deafness that keeps wearing at the nerves she’s deaf, she hasn’t got three heads.”

Although many in the deaf community felt that Amelia’s lip-reading skills were just a bit too unbelievably good, most comments RNID received from our social media community were positive and contributors were pleased that deaf culture issues had been highlighted by The Silence. For example, how hearing families interact with a deaf member and the difficulties faced by those learning to hear after a cochlear implant is fitted.

It’s difficult to disagree with such views, including one follower of RNID Twitter, who tweeted: “Nowadays TV shows so much garbage like Corrie and so it’s nice to get a change with The Silence.”

Overwhelmingly, The Silence achieves its aims in raising deaf awareness. I think Barr herself sums it up in a BBC blog when she writes: “I hope that people will see the uniqueness of Amelia, my character, and that, while she struggles to adapt to a hearing world, her personality is in no way subdued. If anything, her disability enhances her charisma and makes her stand out even more as a pretty forthcoming and stubborn individual. Amelia Edwards – she’s definitely not just a ‘deaf girl’.”

Nearly five million people in the UK agreed, tuning in to all four episodes last week, which can only be a huge plus to help raise deaf awareness among the wider public.

It’s also important to remember how far the UK has progressed with equality for individuals with a disability. Whether people count deafness as one or not, no one could have imagined even five years ago that a profoundly deaf actress would play the lead role in a mainstream drama.

It’s far from perfect but The Silence has broken new barriers, as Coronation Street did when it cast Cherylee Houston as its first full-time disabled character, wheelchair user Izzy Armstrong earlier this year.

Emma Harrison is director of public engagement at RNID

This article is published in the 22 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Definitely not just a ‘deaf girl’

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