Monday, 12 July 2010

The Silence (BBC One)

Here's a quick review (for Orange) of tonight's first episode of The Silence - a four-part thriller by Australian writer Fiona Seres, which is being stripped across the week on BBC One.

As you may read below, I enjoyed the episode but wish it had focussed on the stress Amelia faces by being suddenly pitched into the hearing world. That part of the story is handled really well, but the coincidences that fuelled the thriller element seemed a bit too convenient.

The slightly uneasy mix of thriller and family drama reminded me of part of the discussion at the recent Second Coming or Looming Apocalypse: The Writer in Modern TV event at the BFI.

Going through Michelle Lipton's excellent notes from the event (PDF), I found the quotes from Tony Marchant (writer) and Ben Stephenson (BBC commissioner) I was thinking of. The panellists were responding to a question about whether there were subjects the BBC wouldn't cover:

Tony Marchant: Genre plays a big part in this too. Drama is sometimes bent out of shape to make it a thriller or whatever, when sometimes the subject might have been more interesting without being turned into a whodunit. Five Days was essentially a drama about race and faith dressed up as a thriller – and all channels are guilty of doing it not just the BBC. It’s like difficult subjects can be tackled if they’re turned into a crime drama or a genre piece.

Ben Stephenson: The Trojan horse of genre can help bring a difficult subject to a larger audience but it wouldn’t be right to crowbar genre in. I don’t think things are being bent out of shape to make it genre, it’s just something some things develop into. Sometimes a bit of genre can go a long way to shape an idea but a “bit of thriller” tacked on to something else is just going to be pants.

The Silence certainly isn't pants, but it seemed to me that the "bit of thriller" being put at the heart of the episode was possibly the least interesting element of the drama. 

Episode One on iPlayer
BBC press pack

Summer can be a shocking time for the serious TV watcher - the time of year when you suddenly notice you've got more than 80% space on your Sky+ box. So, with the World Cup safely out of the way, the BBC is helping you to fill her up again with The Silence, a four-part thriller being screened every night from Monday to Thursday.

Written by Fiona Seres, it tells the story of Amelia (Genevieve Barr), a deaf 18-year-old who's learning to hear after being fitted with a cochlear implant. As she ploughs through her intensive therapy, we also sense the strain that her treatment is exerting on her overprotective parents, Anne (Gina McKee) and Chris (Hugh Bonneville).

While staying with her aunt and uncle, Maggie (Dervla Kirwan) and Jim (Douglas Henshall), and their appalling middle-class children, she witnesses a murder and is spotted by one of the killers before they flee. But it isn't just a murder, it's the murder of a police officer. And guess what? Her Uncle Jim is the murder squad detective who's going to investigate the case.

As you'd guess from the above, this is really three dramas in one: a family drama, a coming of age story and a detective thriller. However, by the end of the first episode, it looks like the least interesting of the stories – the murder – is taking centre stage. The series of coincidences that put Amelia at the heart of the investigation are a bit too convenient, and I'd rather have seen more of Amelia's ambivalence towards being “cured” of her deafness.

Genevieve Barr – a severely deaf actress who was working as a teacher when she got the part – is great. Her performance, along with clever direction and sound design, really takes us into her deaf world, showing the comfort she gets from silence and the pleasure she derives through her other senses. Conversely, a scene where she goes into a noisy pub with her implant turned on highlights what a horrible bloody racket we have to put up with most of the time.

The trailer for episode two showed more of Amelia getting involved in her cousins' dope-fuelled social life, so hopefully that aspect of the story will step forward and claim back some of the ground from the thriller bit. Whatever happens, the first part was a classy, confident bit of telly. I'll be hanging around for the other three parts.

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