Warning: this article includes spoilers for EastEnders.
The special EastEnders episode took place from Ben Mitchell’s perspective: hearing viewers experienced limited audio levels, on-screen subtitles and fractured sentences to highlight some of the realities of being a deaf person in the UK today.
Ben Mitchell’s character in EastEnders, played by Max Bowden, had been partially deaf in one ear since childhood, but a dramatic boat crash led to further hearing loss. In previous episodes, Ben’s boyfriend Callum befriended deaf character Frankie Lewis (played by deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis), and encouraged her to meet with Ben to offer him support. Despite Ben’s reluctance to accept her help, Frankie – who embraces the deaf community – encourages Ben to not give up on life. The pair will eventually communicate using sign language: a first for EastEnders.
The special episode, broadcast on Monday 1st June, was part of Ben’s long running storyline which aims to reflect the impact of someone who is experiencing substantial hearing loss. Throughout the episode, hearing viewers experienced limited audio levels, on-screen subtitles and fractured sentences. Ben’s character had struggled with recent events but wanted to prove that he was capable of helping with Phil’s dodgy dealings… leading to a dangerous situation!
As Ben and Phil discussed the plan, Phil realised that his son was struggling to understand. Phil banned his son from joining the job, and begged him to think of his daughter Lexi. However, Ben was tricked into coming along, leading to Danny holding them at gunpoint and the realisation that they were being set up for murder. Infuriated that Ben couldn’t hear him, Danny shot the gun, leaving Ben screaming in pain: potentially now fully deaf.
Some viewers were not impressed by the episode:
However, others were quick to point out that what might be ‘annoying’ for hearing viewers, is everyday life for D/deaf and hard of hearing people.
The story was initially pitched by scriptwriter Charlie Swinbourne.
“Being deaf myself I’ve always looked out for Ben Mitchell’s character because he was the one who wore hearing aids. I wanted to explore how losing more of his hearing affects Ben, as well as how it makes him see the world – and his deaf identity.” – Charlie Swinbourne.
EastEnders worked with the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) and other experts to ensure the storyline is portrayed as accurately as possible.
“It was an absolute privilege to work with the team, who were so dedicated to making sure they got this right.
‘This ground-breaking episode will give viewers a glimpse into the challenges many deaf people in the UK come up against each and every day, with brilliant technical skill to make viewers feel some sense of what Ben Mitchell is experiencing… for all those deaf young people who rarely see themselves, their life experiences or the challenges they go through represented on the programmes they love, this episode is for you.” – Vicki Kirwin, audiology specialist at NDCS.
Max Bowden has started learning sign language during the Coronavirus lockdown. Rose Ayling-Ellis – the first deaf actress to play a deaf character on EastEnders – sent Max a free online course to learn sign language.
“I think it’s important for me to truly understand the deaf community properly, to learn it and do my bit. It’s an ever-growing skill that I’m having to work towards.” – Max Bowden.