Emily Howlett: What it was like to act in tonight’s episode of Holby City

Posted on April 7, 2015

Casualty, Silent Witness, Call The Midwife… There seems to have been quite a few deaf characters popping up in mainstream television recently. Nowhere near enough, of course. But all good revolutions start quietly and steadily, and ours is no exception.

Earlier this year, I filmed a one-off episode of Holby City, opposite the lovely Julian Peedle-Calloo. This was only my second mainstream screen work since before I had the baby, threw all my toys out the pram and quit acting, then decided to start doing it again because, frankly, I don’t get to wear enough weird clothes just as Emily Howlett.


So, although I was still in the acting world in other ways, it had been a while since I’d been in front of a camera. Even longer since I’d been in front of a camera with my voice on. Even longer since… No, I can’t keep talking about the pants.

Anyway, moving swiftly on, the television world is entirely different to any other environment. It can be stressful, even if you love it, and even more so if you are deaf. I’ll let Julian explain;

“Whenever you work in television, you always have to be aware of how fast people work. There are so many elements to consider and often you are faced with fast turn arounds to ensure everything gets completed. But with Holby City, they always made us feel part of the wider team. It’s not a case of them fitting around my requirements, but that I fit into theirs.

“Of course, there will always be one or two individuals who will find it awkward working with a deaf person. It’s not their fault; I might be the first deaf person they have met. But, with a good team, once you’ve ironed out the creases, everything just fits into place.”

He puts it so much better than me, doesn’t he? But I agree wholeheartedly; there couldn’t have been a nicer way for me to ‘come back’ to screen work.

I also feel we were extremely lucky to be given the opportunity to play these particular characters. There is no tokenism here. Not even a deafness-related story.

Julian and I both scoured our scripts, trying to identify Deaf issues that were being waved around, and there were none. It was an exciting moment; characters who happen to be deaf, rather than Deaf Characters.

As Julian said: “I really take my hat off to the BBC for taking the great leap of casting deaf actors without the need of a deaf storyline. This is revolutionary and I count it a privilege to be a part of it!”

And, of course, by making the characters human, rather than deaf, the writing team had allowed them to become fully fleshed and interesting. It was a treat to really find the detail in the characters and their relationship, rather than feeling like we were just there to wave our hands around a bit (which happens far too often).

Naturally, as in real life, while Julian’s character was alright I suppose, mine was the best. Even Julian admitted it:

“I did enjoy your character’s dialogue. She had some beautiful sarcastic lines, which is right up my street. My character, though lovely, was very passive and quite prim and proper, which is the complete opposite to my own nature and character. It proved to be quite a challenge. But I was game for it. I did feel for you, Emily, when you had to deliver some really awkward lines, which not only hurt my character’s ego, but were also very embarrassing to say.”

(Just as an aside, dear Readers, I personally had literally no problem with hurting his ego. Just sayin’…)

Although the whole team were great to work with (at risk of sounding like a total bellend, I must say Bob Barrett is wonderful for his photogenic face, Kaye Wragg is just wonderful and my personal tea slave was… well, carry on practicing, dude, you’ll be wonderful at it one day), it was fantastic to see Julian in his pants… I mean, it was fantastic to work with director Griff Rowland. Obviously, I pestered him relentlessly. This is what he had to say (other than “Please bog off now”):

“There had been a plan to work with deaf actors all along; and even more important was finding good deaf actors. We saw a few excellent ones and a few that were not so strong. After we cast the role of Dan, we also took into consideration whether the female actor’s character would work with him. After all, you have to believe in them as a couple for the story to work. That’s just normal procedure when it comes to casting.

“I know that Jane Wallbank, the producer, was very clear from the outset that she wanted a story that was not related to being deaf. It was the closeness of their relationship and its fallibility, just like everyone else’s, that was important to us. That’s what I was looking for when working on the scenes and the resonance the deaf couple’s relationship had for another relationship on screen. Neither couple had communicated properly with each other even though both loved each other very much.”

So during casting, they consciously paired me up with Julian. Even though he has been my mortal enemy for years. And I would have to pretend to love him very much. It got easier once I’d seen him in his pants, obviously.

I also asked Griff if the experience had been positive, despite having to make allowances for deafies on set. One of the terps had a gun to his head at the time, but he said quite happily:

“I don’t think we did anything that differently. We did frame the shots a bit wider than normal, to capture the signing, but I think we had super actors and super interpreters and I can’t recall any hitches or any problem on that front at all.

“Communication was fluent. If I had a note to deliver, the interpreters were there on my shoulder so that I could look at you and Julian face to face.

“It was a different day, for sure, and all of the team really enjoyed the experience but the performances and the scenes were all so good, and that’s when you get the buzz.”

And it was indeed a buzz. And not just because my tea slave fed me 162 cups of lukewarm caffeine an hour; but because, possibly for the first time in mainstream work, I felt like just another member of the team.

I felt entirely insignificant, un-special and boring; just another actor on set. It has never felt so good to go unnoticed.

And, of course, when nobody is paying special attention to you, you can just sit quietly and watch well-respected Deaf actors walking round practising their lines in their sexy… surgical gown. Be still, my racing heart. Oh, unless the cast are around to fix it for me. Especially Bob. Bob? Bob…? Anyone…?

Watch tonight’s episode of Holby City on BBC1 to see Emily and Julian in action!

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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