Channel 4, Sunday at 9pm, the slot that gave us Homeland launched a new series The Returned.

The  trailer told us that this is “the no.1 French thriller”, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration for a series that had an average audience of less than 1.5 million on Canal+, 23.3% of the subscribership for this subscription service. Significantly, the trailer showed off the stylish look of the series, but had not one scrap of dialogue. When the programme began, it dawned on the 1.5 million UK viewers that Channel 4 was embarking on a bold experiment, one so new to British TV that, for many years, it had only been tried by one channel: BBC4, a channel so marginalised by its parent broadcaster that has just lost its controller and is unlikely, it seems, to get a replacement. So it was high time that Channel 4 reclaimed the baton of the bold and innovative and ventured down the same path. So The Returnedwas broadcast in a subtitled form. French people spoke in French and monoglot viewers had to read what they said. Channel 4 had been subtitle-hostile territory since Michael Grade took over as controller way back in 1987. He outlawed subtitled programmes, and even subtitled movies became a late-night rarity. Subtitles in programmes were reserved for the Marginal (people whose spoken English was deemed incomprehensible to the viewer) or the Evil (as in all those terrorist types who mutter among themselves in languages that are inherently subversive). In short, subtitling in programmes began to acquire a distinctly suspect reputation, until BBC4 began to show The Spiral [Engrenages] and The Killing. So, for Channel 4, The Returned was a welcome return to television that you have to read as well as just read about.

Then came the first advert break. Watching it on catch-up, I almost missed this feature. The first ad break featured commercials in French as well (more or less). These showed how much in common British and French viewers actually have. We have the same international commercials, but dubbed into our languages and with subtly added local material (two French lawyers in that otherwise visually familar Renault ad?). It also kicked off a Twitterstorm with 480 tweets a minute during the break. Clearly subtitled ads in French are far more subversive than programmes with writing on the bottom.

Subtitling may be a rarity on broadcast TV in Britain, but technologically, it has become progressively easier. Fan subtitling, originally of manga material has now become the standard way in which US or international material first enters other linguistic markets. In 2009 Saverio Perrino offered a useful overview of the various systems that were then available, concluding that these systems could not compete with professional services. Subsequent developments have rendered this view outdated and late last year Perrino recommended that the EUscreen project should try to integrate a form of fan subtitling into its user interface. The project will now take this forward over the next few months.

Once associated with acts of piracy, fan subtitling activity has become quasi-institutionalised, as local broadcasters recognise that fan subtitling offers a superior service in terms of background knowledge of a series format and character backstory. A fan is unlikely to make the kinds of mistakes made by a professional translator working from a written script. The main activity still relates to the adaptation of English language material into other languages; I would love to encounter fiction or entertainment material from minority languages with English fan subtitles, but I haven’t yet. Any leads can be placed in the handy box at the end of this article.

Subtitling of English in English is another matter. The provision of subtitles for the ‘deaf and hard of hearing’ is pretty much universal in UK broadcasting now. Conceived years ago as a service to that particular community, it has, like many ‘minority’ provisions, developed in quite unexpected ways. Subtitles are really useful for those of us who struggle to understand the dialogue on many US drama series (and I don’t just mean The Wire). The combination of idiosyncratic slang and hyper-realistic mumbling can often be challenging to a non-native speaker of American English. In addition, BUFVC have discovered how easy it is to use the subtitle stream as a means to search through TV material, as Box of Broadcasts now demonstrates. Even the live subtitling of news can be used in this way, despite the occasional problems generated by its use of quasi-automatic systems: for the first few weeks of the Cameron government, it was referred to as “the collision government”… perhaps presciently.

So as language teaching is increasingly squeezed out of our school system, subtitling becomes an important activity and resource in television. Subtitled drama fits perfectly into the trend towards drama that is watched at your convenience and so with an intensity of concentration that much TV still does not assume (no reality TV-style recaps after every commercial break in quality drama). Such drama also breeds a desire to extend the experience of the fictional world beyond the confines of the linear narrative. So if you want a really good extension Les Revenants, don’t go to Channel 4’s website, but try what Canal+ have on offer. Bonne chance, les mecs!


JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London.  He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and leads the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen.  His publications can be found HERE.