Simon Herdman: How I became one of the presenters of the CBeebies BSL poetry series Magic Hands!

Posted on April 25, 2013

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For most Deaf people, learning poetry is like trying to master the 292 languages of China in just one class.

And it’s not just about learning one single poem; you have to take into account the aesthetics of poetry, such as rhyming, verse forms and repetition. Poetry resonates with contrasting images, is filled with layers of multiple meanings and possesses ambiguity, symbolism, irony, metaphors and other stylistic elements.

When you think about it, this sounds like a description of British Sign Language, doesn’t it?

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Before I appeared in Magic Hands, I had a small passion for poetry, thanks to my English Literature classes at school, where I had felt a very special connection to a particular poem (details about that later).

So, when Sebastian Cunliffe (who is part of the Magic Hands team at Remark) approached me to audition for one of the roles, I took up the offer. This was mainly because I have an antagonizing yet undying love for Visual Vernacular and I believed that I could use Visual Vernacular to express the true meaning of a singular poem.

One of the main sources of my inspiration was when the talented Adam Bassett mastered the poem of ‘Spring And Winter’ during the exhilarating performance of Deafinitely Theatre’s Love’s Labour’s Lost at Shakespeare’s Globe last summer; as well as Deaf Artists Giuseppe Giruanna and Ace Mahbaz.

For my Magic Hands audition, I had to recite the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I was able to devise a version completely in Visual Vernacular with the help of a few experienced friends. After I delivered my creation, the interviewers dropped a bombshell by asking me to recite another poem on the spot, which I managed to perform – albeit woefully, in my opinion!

Needless to say, when I discovered that I had landed a place on the presenting team I was flabbergasted!

Ep10 Surprise - Simon with Train copy

Fast-forward to the first meeting when I met everyone on the team involved with Magic Hands. After this, the wonderful Jean St. Clair gathered all of the presenters in a room to rehearse, where I found out that I would not be able to use Visual Vernacular at all, because the whole purpose of the programme was to translate and portray the assigned poems in British Sign Language.

This was a setback for me, but with the guidance of Jean, I was able to generate and translate the poems successfully into BSL.

Firstly, I had to develop the mind-set of presenting the poems to a target audience of children. This meant breaking down and simplifying the translation so that children would be able to comprehend the sign language versions of the poems.

But that was not all; I also had to maintain a demeanour that would children would connect with. During the process of translation, it took me a while to be satisfied with the end result, and then I had to undergo modifications with Jean to vastly improve the rhythm of the poem.

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On the days of production, I had an absolutely cracking time, and I was treated like an emperor. (It must be what Christian Bale feels like every time he is on a movie set).

I gave it my all when delivering the translation of the poem in BSL, but the hardest part of it was keeping quiet during filming, as I have a tendency to use my Deaf voice whenever I sign. Along with that; maintaining a Cheshire cat smile throughout the poem also wasn’t the easiest thing in the world!

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Regardless, I had an absolute cracking time during the entire production of Magic Hands, and I would like to thank everyone who was involved, it would not have been possible without having such an amazing team.

I hope that the programme will help enable children who use BSL to understand the expressive connotations of poetry, and improve their understanding of English Literature. Magic Hands could lead to the beginning of something beautiful- further mainstream programmes being broadcast in sign language.

Earlier, I mentioned a poem that I felt a special connection with. The poem is ‘Nothing’s Changed’ written by Tatamkhulu Afrika. Go and look it up and I hope you will understand the connection I had with it. Lastly, I hope the children of our community will tune in to watch Magic Hands every morning!

The first episode of Magic Hands appeared on the CBeebies Channel on Monday the 22nd of April. The series will then run every weekday for three weeks at 9.15am and 1.15pm! You can also find it on iPlayer here.

To read the interviews with Magic Hands presenters Aimee, Ashley, Donna and Simon and director Camilla, go to this website at BBC Media Centre: www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/magichands/

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Posted in: simon herdman