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Our amazing sign language tutor taught BSL to Sherlock and Dr Watson for hit BBC show

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BBC show Sherlock hearing dog tutor British Sign Language

Did you see BBC’s Sherlock New Year’s Day special this week? Over 8.4 million of us tuned in to watch The Abominable Bride when Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) tackled another gripping case.

In this one-off special, there was a particular scene we were super excited to see. Sherlock, Watson and actor Tim Barlow use British Sign Language (BSL) – and we couldn’t be prouder of our very own BSL tutor Jill Hipson for teaching them their lines!

Jill, who is deaf and a BSL teacher, went to both Benedict and Martin’s house to help them learn their sign language lines – and even got to join them on set. No, we’re not jealous either…

Lovely Jill has kindly written a blog post for us describing how she found the experience. Read about her ‘career high point’ below.

Jill’s Sherlock experience

“Tim Barlow is a long-standing friend who I met through National Association of Deafened People. He is also deaf and works as character actor in TV and film productions. One day he emailed me to say he’d got a small part as a Deaf person with six lines of BSL, and wondered if I could teach him the signs he needed for this role. 

“When I said I would happily help, he explained that the part was in the New Year’s Day special of Sherlock, and its stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman also needed to learn BSL for their scene with Tim. I thought at first it was a leg pull! But the production assistant at Sherlock emailed me and fixed up a time just before Christmas for me to go to Benedict’s house to teach him his lines.

“I’d never met a famous actor before, much less taught one, and asked Hearing Dogs’ media and campaigns manager Charlotte Peters if she could spare the time to come with me as communication support. I knew I’d need someone who wouldn’t be as nervous as me! So one Monday morning we were picked up by a car and driver and taken to Benedict’s house.

Meeting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

“Benedict (and his famous cheekbones) was suffering from a bad cold, but he sat down and got straight on with it. He was really interested in BSL and asked intelligent questions about how signs are created, and about people signing the wrong thing by mistake.

“A few weeks later, Anna and I sat in Martin’s comfortable kitchen and he made us a cup of tea and learnt his lines in BSL. We then watched him mixing up a bowl of food for one of his dogs. It was a very frosty morning and his children were running in and out with pieces of ice and frosted leaves to show him. It was so normal and homely.  Martin picked up BSL remarkably quickly – unlike his character Dr Watson.

On the Sherlock set

Sherlock Holmes BBC behind the scenes

BSL tutor Jill Hipson (right) and actor Tim Barlow (left) taking a selfie on the Sherlock set

“The filming date was in early January 2015. My daughter Anna and I had no idea where we were going until the evening before. We found ourselves on a train to Cardiff and pitched up at the hotel.

“The next morning, Anna and I were picked up at 7am. It was pitch dark and pouring with rain. A little bit later, we arrived at a destination that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It was somewhat surreal to be shown to the staff canteen, a trailer full of tables and bus seats, while outside it was still pitch dark and pouring with rain. The film set was a hive of activity with multitudes of people and tons of equipment. A fleet of lorries was parked outside. It was organised chaos, and freezing cold.

“We couldn’t get over the number of people involved in the production. There were cameramen, soundmen and technicians, security, a nurse, a make up team, a wardrobe team and runners. Production assistants. The producers and directors. They even had body doubles of the stars, employed just to stand in the correct places for the lighting set-up and checks. There were also other actors and all the props – potted palms, desks, crystal inkwells, vases. The amount of people involved was very impressive.

“The BSL scene is a very short one, but it took five hours to film. I thought they’d set up cameras at different angles but they filmed it over and over again from different points to get close-ups of the actors’ faces and hands. It was an education in itself watching the actors performing the same scene again and again, trying to get everything the same each time. When they’d finished filming the stars from all angles, they stripped the set and turned the camera round to film my friend Tim from the front.

“Eventually all was finished and everyone downed tools and trooped off for lunch. There was a trailer parked opposite the staff canteen and an assortment of delicious food was on offer, with salads and bread set up outside. They certainly look after their staff.

“It was very interesting working with actors. Facial expressions are very important in BSL as they replace tones of voice. Most people loathe role-play in BSL classes but actors aren’t afraid of expressions and they don’t feel shy ‐ these people got straight on with it, it’s their day job.

“I will always remember this work as one of the highlights of my BSL teaching career.”

You can watch Sherlock: The Abominable Bride on BBC iPlayer here. (The BSL scene starts at 26 minutes).

Want to find out more?

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Not all deaf people use BSL – there are a number of ways you can communicate easily with a deaf person. One of our hearing dog recipients Billy Falconer has told us his top tips for speaking with those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Read Billy’s top communicating tips here.

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1 Comment

  • moebius  on 5 January 2016 at 8:53 pm

    Hmm… us Yanks gotta wait until it premieres in the States. :(

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