Audio description (AD) on TV programmes and films is truly one of the features of modern life which gives me the most pleasure. For those who have not experienced AD, it brings a programme or film to life for visually impaired viewers by describing the visual elements on screen that would otherwise remain “unseen”, such as action, facial expressions and body language. This is done by narration during gaps between dialogues. It is produced for an increasing number of TV programmes – according to OFCOM, in 2013, 23.3% of output (on services that were required to have it had AD. AD can be accessed on most modern TVs regardless of service providers. It can also be accessed on some DVDs through the menus, usually the language menu, but it appears to be a complete lottery as to which films have it as an option.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a rush of adrenalin kind of pleasure, it’s more a satisfied discrete pleasure that comes from not feeling left out, a feeling that I’ve enjoyed the media in the way intended. In short, it normalises the experience for me, and I love it!
How bizarre, for example, that when reflecting on the Revenant (2015 film), my first thought was “What beautiful scenery”, so vivid were the images created in my mind! That’s how good it can be.
I can now fully partake in (dialogue deficient) action films, whereas for years I avoided them like the plague as there wasn’t much that I could follow. Whilst family tried to describe what was going on, they didn’t always know the characters names, and more often than not had not had the chance of seeing it beforehand. This often led to at best confusion, and at worse frustration. Such a practice can be a recipe for family tension, or full blown arguments!
However, there are a few features that could be improved. For instance, the BBC AD regularly gets people’s names wrong, which could confuse someone who is less on the ball than me, and then there are the films where you can’t hear the AD because of the noisy background; one often wonders whether the equivalent of proof reading has happened at the production level before the output is made available to the public!
AD is also available on some films at the cinema. I am a patron of Cineworld, and when a Cineworld film has AD you are given a handset and headset that can be used to play the AD track. This means you have to have one ear on, and one ear off, so that you can hear the film as well. In my experience, the major flaw with this system is that receiving the signal Cleary can be tricky. Once found, you have to keep the handset perfectly still, or the signal is lost, usually at a key point in the plot. This has often resulted in me sitting with my arm out-stretched, slowly losing all feeling; it’s a bugger trying to open a packet of Revels in this position, I can tell you!
It’s also tricky getting the volume level right; a noisy car chase requires the volume to be turned up to a loud level, but this can cause problems when the film quickly cuts to a quiet scene – many is the time that my headset has blasted out the AD track to the rest of the cinema theatre as I quickly fumble for the volume control!! It’s a good job it’s dark in the cinema to cover my embarrassment!
I often think one improvement to the AD service would be to give the user a choice of AD formats, e.g. the standard Victorian politically correct AD or a more earthy laddish AD.
The example that I always give to make my point comes from the 2006 film Casino Royale. In that film Bond’s love interest, Solange, rides a horse on the beach; that just about sums up the AD for that scene. My ex-wife immediately said that it omitted to tell me that her big boobs were bouncing all over the place – Solange’s, not my ex-wife’s! Male or female, if you’re sighted, you would have noticed that for sure! If you’re male and you’ve seen that film, I bet you can see that scene in your mind’s eye right now! So why should I miss out on this when AD is supposed to level the playing field for me?
Ok, so perhaps this isn’t the best example as Casino Royale has a PG-13 rating, but it does make the point.
AD is brilliant at describing a person’s height, age, hair colour, eyes, etc, but it describes a person like your mum would. It’s quite different to how one of my mates would describe a person, male or female, who just walked into the pub, for instance! And you might as well switch off the AD altogether if there’s a naked scene; suddenly, the man or woman that previously felt compelled to describe the most irrelevant of personal features in minute detail, suddenly becomes mute! Never mind no description of size, shape, etc, there’s little, or more usually no description as to what they are actually doing. It’s definitely more Barbara Cartland than E.L. James! One is often simply left to imagine what might be happening, and although it might sound like wrestling, if there’s no AD then it will not be wrestling!!
Which AD style would you prefer if you were watching a love scene; Victorian AD or laddish AD? I’m sure we all have friends that we suspect would give us a no-holds barred AD if desired – I can think of at least a dozen friends, and they’re not all male!!
In summary, whilst AD is awesome on the whole, it does leave one feeling slightly like a part of a social subset that cannot deal with the realities of adult life, and that kind of thinking should, to my mind, be left in the past, along with the institutions and the nanny-state attitudes which accompanied them.