EastEnders Deaf Awareness Episode
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
I stopped watching EastEnders sometime last year because I sadly lost interest in the story lines. Although, once it was announced that there was going to be a Deaf Awareness episode, I was immediately hooked and knew that I had to watch it!
The character Ben Mitchell, played by Max Bowden, is a partially deaf character. Ben was unfortunately caught up in a boat accident on the River Thames, where the explosion left him with deteriorated levels of hearing and tinnitus. EastEnders wanted to give viewers the experience of severe sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus; something that his character is trying to come to terms with.
During the episode, the audio levels were reduced when other characters spoke to Ben. Subtitles flashed up on the screen, with fractured sentences of the spoken words. This gave viewers an insight of the daily experiences of people with a hearing loss. I feel that the fast-paced subtitles were spot on, because this reflected my own experiences, whereby someone speaks, and I do not catch everything that they said. Viewers may or may not have managed to read the entire subtitled sentence in time, which symbolised the idea of ‘not catching everything’, a common phrase people with a hearing loss use.
When in busy scenes, the background noise was muted and completely muffled, the only sound we could hear, was the screech of his tinnitus, which intensified during moments when he felt a great deal of stress and anxiety. I believe that this is a great portrayal of deafness. As a person with anxiety, I suffer this a great deal, which makes my tinnitus sound ‘louder’ and unbearable at times.
Throughout the 30-minute episode, we follow Ben from the beginning of his day, where he woke up and was running late, taking his daughter to school. His partner Callum asked him, to join him and a group of friends for a social drink. Ben politely declined, “I can’t. Lots of people. I won’t be able to hear anything.” This shows how deafness impacts us from a social perspective. We isolate ourselves because of the difficulty coping in groups of hearing folk.
On the school run, there was a moment when he got distracted and almost hit by a van that was blasting its horn! This is a scenario that I have found myself in, many times! I was pleased to see how EastEnders, considered including the dangers we encounter with a hearing loss. We must be visually alert, to avoid dangerous situations such as these. I have found myself being almost hit by a car, double decker bus… even a massive ‘Suffolk Punch’ horse! (I recommend that you Google these horses!)
One of the scenes, Ben sits in the café and the acoustics of the café sounded very confusing, for example, the games machine and the coffee machine were clearly both distracting for Ben, whilst his Dad was speaking to him. The varying camera angles throughout the whole episode were a great way of supporting the limited acoustics and created a disorientating feeling, something that comes part in parcel with a profound hearing loss, in a hearing world.
In a separate scene, Ben was speaking to his Dad, Phil, who was taking Ben through the details of his planned ‘dodgy dealings’. Subtitles appeared, but only fragments of his sentence. This highlights the communication difficulties that deaf people face, missing out on lots of detail, which explains why we rely on lipreading to support us. Ben asks Phil to repeat the details, “you’re just talking a bit too fast. I’ve got to lipread”, which left Phil frustrated and concerned that Ben couldn’t cope with the ‘job’, thus tells him that he cannot help.
This was one of the important ‘Deaf Awareness’ scenes for me. The sense of anxiety that one feels when trying so hard to focus on trying to hear ‘important details’. I experience this myself on a regular basis, where I am sat down and told to “listen carefully”. I am hoping that people learn from this scene and recognise the importance of lip reading and avoid looking down and turning away, when speaking to a deaf person. Viewers can then notice how Ben is clearly yearning for his Father’s approval and wants to be considered ‘a Mitchell’, when he says “Dad, I’m still the same man, all right? I just can’t hear”. Something that I always try and highlight in my advocacy work. Guys we are all normal people! We just cannot hear!
Later that evening, Ben sees some suspicious behaviour and discovers that his Dad is indeed being set up! During the final 10 minutes of the episode, Ben comes face to face with the ‘bad guys’ who referred to him as “the cripple” and “freak”. The comments are very offensive, but sadly, this is reality for some deaf people who are victims of verbal bullying.
Unfortunately, during the end of the episode, there was a dramatic life changing scene for Ben. A gun was fired near his ‘good ear’ by villain, Danny, and as a result, he lost more of his hearing, and this left him screaming in pain.
The villain pushed Ben to the floor screaming “This your good ear? Can you hear me?” before he fired the gun and then further taunts him, “How about now?!”.
I did notice the camera draw close to Phil’s hand, where he was gesturing something… then I realised…he was signing ‘beg’!
Earlier in the episode, we saw Ben’s daughter sign this. Despite Phil’s tough and ‘macho’ character, he clearly has a soft spot for his son!
During the end, when Phil and Ben escaped, the programme had gone silent, which clearly shows that the remainder of the hearing he had…was gone! The camera rests on Ben’s face which clearly shows how distressed and overwhelmed he was feeling. The remainder of his hearing was cruelly taken away. Now he just had to figure out how to live with it...
Overall, I was emotional watching the episode come to an end, especially when the camera was resting on a clearly distressed Ben, who was finally able to process the dramatic consequences of the dangerous encounter. I read a lot of comments from irritated viewers, some who could not watch, due to their feeling of frustration and others complaining of the reduced level or sound.
I just sat there reading all the comments and said to myself “that episode was only 30 minutes! How would they cope with deafness 24/7?!”
I think EastEnders did a brilliant job, especially Max who did a great job portraying how deafness can affect someone socially, emotionally, and physically. The anxiety and stress was well portrayed, especially during the times when he had to constantly remind people to slow down and face him, to allow him to successfully lipread. I could definitely relate as a Deaf Awareness Advocate!
Not all deaf people would have been able to relate, due to us all having various levels of hearing loss. But for me, the silence was all too familiar. Once I remove my hearing aids, it is practically silent… up until that annoying ringing sound pops up!
Well done to the crew of EastEnders, especially Max. It is not easy acting as a deaf character with an acquired hearing loss, but it came across well.
Thank you so much for raising Deaf Awareness.