Sam Thorne: I love subtitles, but they’re no good for TV cookery shows

Posted on April 18, 2017

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Some years ago, I was given a book called The Flavour Wheel, which is a brilliant guide to becoming a better home cook.

It’s like an encyclopaedia of flavour combinations, and I’ve used it as a guide for developing the food equivalent of a ‘capsule wardrobe’ for my stock cupboard – a capsule cupboard, if you like.

Armed with the guide (and the many herbs and spices I’d invested in), I started watching cookery programmes for meal ideas, only to encounter a rather significant problem…

The subtitles.

Subtitles, I love you dearly for all the joy you bring—most of the time.

You energise the men in my life by obscuring the scores throughout any form of televised sport. You make it possible to follow shows like Grimm, where the shape-shifters are exceptionally challenging to lipread (and where the handsome human hero isn’t much easier – although I concede I may just not be focusing on his words). You add intrigue to the news by declaring the “one minute’s violence” to be held at the funeral of Khomeini Arafat.

But where cookery programmes are concerned, it’s sur-titles I want, like you get the opera, high above the stage.

I have no idea why TV chefs feel the need to work in kitchens where multiple, concussive copper pans dangle from ceiling hooks, but surely this is the place (over the pans) to put the closed captions?

Do we need to see the ceilings, the lush Mediterranean paintings, or the shelves stacked with expensive and elusive ingredients? No! These kitchens might be masterpieces of interior design, but what I really want is to be able to see what’s going on at stove level.

Here’s a quick canter though some of the common frustrations with UK-style captions, which are colour-coded according to speaker and which have a black contrast box behind them to keep the words visible:

  • the captions faithfully relay “and this is what the underside of the salmon looks like,” while entirely obscuring the underside of the salmon
  • the chef announces that the oven should be ‘ferociously hot’ (yes, very helpful, Nigella) but the great black block hides the entire temperature dial
  • “See the colour on that flame?” [Er, no.] “That’s the only way you’re going to sear this meat properly.” [Marvellous.]
  • “…and this [Entirely invisible knife-action] is the only quick way of chopping a butternut squash…”

I’m sure you get the idea. The alternative style of captioning (no black background, but the italicised letters are outlined for clarity) is much less invasive, but becomes a problem when the kitchen is so painfully white that the ‘Vanish’ product development team probably goes there to pray.

Of course I’ve experimented with turning the subtitles off to see how I cope with following the footage, but there are problems with this approach.

Chefs, like toddlers, aren’t easy to lip-read. Gordon Ramsay propels himself up and down on the balls of his feet. Nigella Lawson is just too coquettish to follow (all grins and no consonants other than ‘p’ and ‘s’). Rachael Ray doesn’tleaveanygapsbetweenherwords. For lip-reading purposes, I favour Keith Floyd (whose magnificent consumption of wine forced him to enunciate well between slurps), and Nigel Slater, who likes… to give… most syllables… serious thought.

Then there’s the editing of the footage, which isn’t really performed with lip-reading in mind. This kind of sequence isn’t unusual:

“Now, this dish [close-up of pile of ingredients next to empty pan] makes the best of the freshest, most seasonal ingredients, such as [close-up of perennial bell pepper] or parsnips, such as here [close up of dubious veg which is manifestly not a parsnip]. So, what we want, if we want to reeeeeally draw out the sweet flavours of the parsnip, is actually a whole tablespoon of this beautiful spice right here [cue jaunty shaking of anonymous snap-lock storage jar with orange seal] and it’s important to put that in during the middle of the cooking so it neither gets drowned out by nor overpowers the intensity of this [jaunty shaking of identical-looking jar] vital spice. Close-up of cactus in window.]”

So, I reverted to subtitles, which at least have the merit of being entertaining at times, especially in live transmission. I’ve seen the ingredients of a ratatouille listed as tomatoes, onions and cor, jets! (courgettes/zucchini). I’ve seen instructions to cook lasagne at 12000 degrees (possibly a Vesuvian recipe). I think my favourite attempt at subtitling was in an early series of Nigella, where the diligent captioner did their best to run interference on her mysterious system of measurement. Evidently: a smidge is ½ a teaspoon; a lashing 1½ liquid teaspoons; a dollop 3 tbsp; a splish is half a splash, and ‘ferociously hot’ is anything over 200°/390°. Always good to know.

These days, I’ve given up. I stick to recipe books for the useful information such as quantities and cooking time, and just watch for the cutting and food-prep techniques. But just for fun, next time you’ve got a chef on your screen, try either cutting out the sound or turning off the subtitles and then see if you can reproduce the recipe at home.**

** the author takes no responsibility for any chaos, injury or insurance claims that might ensue if you take the latter part of that instruction seriously…

Sam Thorne is an editor, writer, and timid trimmer of trees from West Sussex, Horsham. When not at work, Sam enjoys trying to cook things without burning them, and playing arbitrary-rules football with son Seb.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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