Audio Description – My First Experiences


In this post and video I’m going to discuss my first experiences with audio description in London, for museum galleries, theatre shows, cinema screenings and walking tours.

Before I moved here I never used audio description all that much. I didn’t really feel the need to. When I was watching the TV I would just sit close enough to see it, as I could do that at home. Same with things on my computer like Netflix, Now TV or catchup services. And when I went out to the cinema with friends, I just got enough of the picture to be able to see it, I could see well enough. There would be little bits I miss, but otherwise I was happy just to watch the movie as it was.

And there wasn’t really anything theatre-wise local enough to where I lived to really warrant going there. And the museums, what few there near me, didn’t offer things like audio description as far as I knew. So I never really bothered with it.

But since moving up to London, there’s been a lot going up here that I’ve become aware of, particularly from VocalEyes. They’re a brilliant charity organisation that highlight and arrange all these different audio description events and touch tours at museums and theatre productions and things like that.

And in terms of theatre productions there’s also the Society of London Theatres (SoLT), who also produce a quarterly access brochure, highlighting theatre productions with audio description. Not just VocalEyes ones, but other ones as well.

I’ve been trying a few of these things out recently, and I’ve been enjoying them very much, so I thought I’d talk about a few of them.

Natural History Museum

Large blue whale skeleton hanging in the large hall of the Natural History Museum. Its mouth is open and it looks like it's diving down towards the crowd below.

This was the first museum where I got to experience audio description and handling objects. I went with a local visually impaired group that I’ve become a member of – East London Vision. It was one of my first outings with them.

We went to see the Investigate gallery, which was really good. We had a couple of members of very friendly staff with us, and they let us handle lots of different things, like snake skins and giant turtles and an old meteorite and all sorts of other things. They told us all about them, and we could chat to them and ask questions. Everyone got a chance to feel and everything, it was really good.

Since then I’ve been back to the museum again, because there’s so much to see there. And they’ve got that new, massive skeleton of a whale now in their main Hintze Hall, which replaces Dippy the dinosaur. It’s better to be seen from up above I’ve found. From below it’s quite dark on the underside, and the way the lighting is coming from above, it’s just too dark below to see the detail. But when you go up on the balconies and the light’s shining down on it, it does look amazing.

But one thing I did try there on that particular visit was an audio tour of their Human Evolution gallery. Because they’ve got 3 audio description tours that you can download on their website. So I thought I’d try the Human Evolution gallery tour. And that was really good. It takes you through the 4 sections of the gallery, focusing on one or two specific things in each area, talking you through it and describing it well. It’s really interesting. So there are a couple of other audio description tours that I intend to try there at some point as well.

I also went to their Whales: Beneath The Surface exhibition, and that was really good too. It didn’t have audio description, but it did have a large print guide there. My only criticism with that was it wasn’t always easy to find out which way to go, because the route jumped around a little bit. There was a sort of logical order to it, but you had to hunt for the next exhibit on one or two occasions.

And also, I don’t know if it was just the guide I had, but it was bound back to front. So page 1 was at the back, then you’d turn back to page 2, page 3, and so on. It was the opposite order to the way you’d expect a book to go. So that was a bit weird. But otherwise it was really good, and it’s great that museums are making the effort with large print and audio description like that.

Museum of London Docklands

I went to this museum with Mum, as VocalEyes had been advertising an audio described tour of their Sailortown exhibition. And it turned out that we were the only people booked on to that day! So we got a personalised tour with the very generous guide. We thought perhaps he wouldn’t bother if there were just two of us. But he did take us round. And it was really interesting, he was really nice. It is quite dark in there, so it was quite useful to have someone to describe what was going on.

We got to hear some sounds. smell some things, sit in a small war shelter that was used by emergency services, and find out all sorts of interesting facts. There’s so much interesting stuff in there, I’ll definitely have to go back for a further look around. Museums are well worth going to, as there’s often many little hidden stories that you really just don’t know about.

British Museum

British Museum entrance. The top of the wide steps are 8 tall pillars, spaced along the width of the steps, above which is a triangular roof section containing various carved figures.

This was my most recent visit, to see the Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave exhibition (Hokusai being a very influential Japanese artist). This was also advertised and put on by VocalEyes. They had a describer there, while a curator of the exhibition came round with us as well.

And it was fascinating. I’ve not really been to art galleries before, and I’ve always wondered if I’d find them a bit dry or a bit boring. But this really brought it to life for me, because we had a handling session beforehand, so you could see and feel the woodblocks that he used, including one that was carved out with the design of the painting that was going to result from it. It was so intricate and so detailed. To feel that, along with all the brushes and the paper and materials that he used to produce his imagery, really helped to underline how creative he was, how intricate his work was, how complicated it was. And that made us appreciate the artistry all the more in the exhibition itself.

We went through a few of the key images in the exhibition – not every single one, because it would take way too long, but we went through quite a few of the exhibits. They were described in detail to us by the VocalEyes describer, and then the curator was able to give us all the context and meaning and other information behind it.

So the audio description and the extra information really gelled and connected together nicely. As I say, it really brought it all to life and made it interesting. So much so that I actually got a DVD all about it as well. I never thought I’d buy an art DVD, but this one proved to be very interesting. Especially because it has close-ups of paintings like The Great Wave and others, so I could see detail that even on the day I couldn’t quite see.

But on the day I was able to use my monocular to look at the paintings. We also had a large print guide there as well, which I was using in conjunction with the audio description. And that was useful because, as well as large print text, it also has large versions of the paintings. Slightly simplified drawings if you like, though they are still quite complex. But they have labels on as well, pointing to the different areas of the image. So by using that, it was basically a map for me. So by comparing the large print drawing with the actual painting, using the labels to guide me, I could find and focus on elements that I might otherwise have missed.

So using all those different tools – the audio description, the curator’s description, the large print guide, and my monocular – really helped me understand and appreciate it all much more. And that’s the kind of thing you need with art I think. It’s easy to look at paintings and think that they look nice, but it’s quite another experience to actually hear the stories and meanings behind them. It does make it all the more interesting.

So if you think art’s boring, and you’re visually impaired, I would strongly suggest looking on the VocalEyes VocalEyes website for museums near you, and just trying out one of these art tours. Because you might be surprised, I certainly was.

Cities Talking App

This isn’t quite audio description, but it is an audio tour app that I’ve been experimenting with a bit. I did a tour using that around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens a little while back, which was narrated by Christopher Biggins, and it was very interesting and easy to follow the route around. I was also able to wander off and find other parts of the park as well, because Hyde Park’s massive and beautiful, and then resume the tour.

And then more recently I tried another tour on the app called Death And Rebirth, which takes you around various parts of the Square Mile. The streets around there are a bit more of a maze, and for me the map didn’t really quite work so well. So it was a little bit hard to find things, and I got a little bit lost here and there. But I was able to find quite a few of the things that were mentioned, so it was worth giving it a go.

Talking Statues

A round, blue plaque with the text Talking Statue, Hear Rowland Here, Be Amazed. Before the Be Amazed line, it has 3 options, allowing you to tap your phone against the plaque, type in a short web address, or scan a QR code.

During that most recent audio tour, I came across one of these ‘talking’ statues, which I hadn’t been aware of before. Basically, it has a plaque on the side, and if you scan the QR code on it, the person represented by the statue (voiced by an actor) will ‘call’ you via the website and tell you about themselves. it’s a really good way of doing it. So I’ve downloaded the map for all the statues from their website now, and will try to see how many of these I can find. I’ve already visited a few on my walkabouts already, but hadn’t spotted these plaques, but then I wasn’t looking for them at the time.

I know there’s a cat voiced by Nicholas Parsons, and I know other voices include Jeremy Paxman and Hugh Dennis, among various other people. So it should be interesting, I think it’s a really nice initiative. It’s a shame that there aren’t more statues in London that do that. But there’s quite a few already, and there’s some in other places like Manchester and Leeds as well I think. So they’re well worth looking out for.

Beauty & The Beast

I went to a showing of this film at the cinema recently, as part of a focus group helping the RNIB test an app. They’ve been testing I think once or twice before in a home environment I think, but this was one of the first times they’ve tried it in a cinema. It’s not one of the RNIB’s apps, it’s an app that someone else has developed, and indeed the app developer was there.

It’s basically an app that lets you have audio description for movies on your phone. So instead of getting a headset given to you in the cinema – which I’ve never tried personally – you just take your mobile phone instead. You download the audio description track before you get there and then, when the film starts, you press Play on your device, and it will synchronise the audio to the film. In other words, it will listen to the film, and work out exactly what part of the audio description it needs to start you off with.

And it worked perfectly for me. As soon as the Disney logo started appearing, I hit the Play button, and the description started straight away. So while the logos are playing, you’ve got a chance to adjust the volume and get it at a level that’s right for you. The description for the film was great too, and the film was enjoyable as well, I think certainly enhanced by the description.

Again, I could have watched the movie without it, but having watched it with it, I do actually think I could prefer watching movies with audio description. It does pick up a lot of the facial expressions, props that people pick up, elements of costumes that I can’t quite see clearly, etc. All of those things helped me to keep up with the story, rather than missing them or catching up with little bits later. I think I got so accustomed to not using it before that I hadn’t really considered it.

So if that app continues to be developed as the trials go along, I think it would be really useful. I know cinemas have been a bit reluctant to allow people in with mobile phones, but if this kind of app can work, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be rolled out more widely. So we’ll see what happens there, it will be interesting to see if anything comes of it.

The Mousetrap

The outside of St Martin's Theatre. The theatre name is in white text on a blue background across the top of the doorway. Above this, hanging in front of the windows, is a large sign that says Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, 65th Year. The play's title is in pink script lettering, the rest is in pink block capitals.

The final thing I want to talk about is a trip to the theatre. This has been my favourite activity I think, with the Hokusai exhibition a close second, admittedly. I hadn’t really been aware of audio description in the theatre before. Well, I think I vaguely knew it was a thing, but it’s only since coming to London that I’ve really been able to read about it, and hear about how good people find it. And so I was very curious about it.

I do love the theatre, even though I haven’t really been that often for a while. When I used to come up to London as a kid, we used to go to pantomimes and musicals. I remember going to see Oliver and Wind In The Willows for instance. And I went to see The Lion King two or three years ago with some friends of mine. But none of those were with audio description.

So I recently booked for Mum and I to go and see The Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre, where we would get a touch tour and then the audio-described show itself. It turned out there were quite a few people there for this, so it was clearly popular.

The touch tour took place a couple of hours before the play, and there were two describers from VocalEyes there to help us. We got taken through the back corridors of the theatre and up on to the stage, where the cast got to say hello and tell us who they played, which also gave us a sense of their voices. They didn’t stay for the touch tour, because they obviously have to go off and relax and get ready for the show, which is fair enough. But it was nice of them so say hello.

And then the VocalEyes guys described the stage to us and everything that was on it, before letting us go around and have a close-up look and feel of everything, talking us through it as we did so. For instance, there’s a big old clock on the mantlepiece, which is the only item that’s been there for the entire run. Everything else has changed in one form or another over the years, but that clock is the one constant that’s always been there. And there are a couple of photos on the mantlepiece, one of which is actually of Agatha Christie herself, who wrote the play. And we were allowed to sit in the seats as well, which were very comfy.

And then we got led round the back of the stage, where we got to feel things like the jackets, ski poles, fake snow, etc, and have a look how they generate the sound of the wind and the knocking on the front door. All these little secrets of the backstage area were really interesting. And it all helped to give us some great context for the show, including where everything was, such a where certain doors off the stage lead to in terms of the story. Then we got to go outside and have a walk for half an hour while the theatre was getting ready to welcome everyone.

When we got back to the theatre again, we got presented with our headsets for the performance. I hadn’t known what to expect there – I assumed it would be headphones that go over your head, but they actually hang down. It’s a bit like a doctor’s stethoscope, but instead of the wire at the bottom, it’s basically just a unit that just hangs under your chin, and hangs off your ears. It’s perfectly comfortable too.

There are just a couple of small controls on it as well. The main dial turns it on or off and adjusts the volume, while another little switch changes the channel, so you can tune into the frequency of the VocalEyes describer. They are elsewhere in the auditorium, presumably behind a window or something so they don’t disturb any people near them. They will have seen a previous performance, either on DVD or live in person, in order to write their audio description script, then they speak it to you live on the night. You can’t really pre-record audio description for a theatre show, because it’s slightly different every night. After all, the timings are slightly different, things might go wrong, the director might change something, etc. So it has to be done live on the night.

And it worked really well. I was really impressed with it, as was Mum. It really helped to fill in the key things like the facial expressions, and there were a few little props which were crucial to the story that we had to know about, so it was good that they were mentioned. It really helped to fill in all the gaps that we would otherwise have missed. If I’d watched the show without it, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying, I’m sure of that. You need to know all the elements, whether they be clues or red herrings, to fully appreciate it.

Indeed, The Mousetrap itself is a brilliant play. If you’re not sure if you’d like something like that, go anyway. Trust me, it’s really well written and put together. All the different guests that arrive at the guest house all have their own story and characteristics, they’re all very different. And it all comes together nicely, with twists and turns and red herrings. I was never entirely sure who the murderer was. I had one or two names in mind, but I didn’t guess the final outcome. So definitely go and see it if you can.

A large wooden sign that says - This performance is number 26980 of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, the world's longest running play. The black numbers are behind square holes, allowing them to change for each show.

And that’s it. Those are my experiences of audio description in London so far. They’ve been brilliant, and I’ll definitely be doing more of them. Audio description really enhanced the experience in each case, which helpsed me to enjoy and appreciate it more. Even though I can see fairly well, there are still various details that I miss, so it’s great to know about them in time with everybody else, rather than figuring them out later. It’s nice to be there in the moment and enjoy it properly.

In particular, the next theatre show I’ve got booked is Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. It’s a two-part play, and I’m seeing both parts on the same day. Mum’s paid for that as my birthday present for this month. And there plenty of other things that I want to go and see, including musicals and more museums. It’s tempting to book everything!

I’ve also got an Access Card now, which I applied for very recently. That helps to give information to venues like The O2 about your condition – not necessarily to get audio description, but it’s just something else I thought I’d mention while talking about theatres and venues.

So there is a lot of this kind of stuff out there. As I say, check out sites like VocalEyes, and the Access Guide from Society of London Theatre to see what performances are out there. You can experience the culture and the arts, the theatre and the cinema, museums and galleries, and you can go out for walks, and so on. There’s no reason to think that having a disability here is a barrier, because the support’s there and the technology’s there. So if you’re a Londoner and you’re visually impaired, or if you’re visiting the city and you’re visually impaired, there’s plenty to check out. And there are things going on elsewhere in the country too, some of which VocalEyes will tell you about.

So that’s it for now. Thank you very much for reading, I hope you found it interesting and that you learnt something from it. I’ll leave you with links to the various things I’ve mentioned in this post:

Author: Glen

Vsually impaired, with Aniridia & Nystagmus. I'm a fan of Doctor Who, classic sitcoms, Queen and 60s-80s rock & pop. I like to blog about my experiences as a disabled person, and about the things I enjoy in general.

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