They are a handsome family, the Bishops – comedian John, his wife Melanie and their 27-year-old son Joe. You would never know anything was wrong. But it is, and has been since Joe contracted a virus 12 years ago and developed Cogan’s syndrome. It is an autoimmune disease that attacks – among other things – ear tissue. Joe lost a significant portion of his hearing overnight. The disease is progressive and it is likely that he will soon become completely deaf. He also suffers from tinnitus. “It’s loud at the moment,” he says during his first on-camera appearance, “because I’m nervous.”
The ostensible theme of the hour-long documentary John and Joe Bishop: Life After Deaf (ITV) is John’s decision to start learning British Sign Language (BSL) in order to perform a comedy act for a deaf audience about his experience of life as a parent of a deaf son. The real subject is the elicitation and beginning—only the beginning, but all the more moving for it—of these experiences.
Melanie is surprised that John made the plan and that Joe agreed to join him in BSL lessons. “Joe has never embraced anything about his deafness,” she says, and it soon becomes abundantly clear that the same is true of John. He didn’t want to introduce Joe to society, he says. “I was afraid of him becoming a part of it because you have to admit that he’s not going to get better … and I think we’ve all toyed with the idea that it’s just going to go away.” Tears threaten for the first time, but not the last time. On stage, old recordings show his transformation between parent and performer. “My son lost his hearing as a teenager. It’s hard for a parent to know because teenagers just ignore you anyway.”
Joe – and definitely Melanie – remember that John was gone in the hardest, early days because Joe got sick just as John’s career was taking off. “We never sat down and had a heart-to-heart about it. Should have as kids, but we didn’t. Twenty-seven is too late to go back over childhood events,” says Joe.
But of course it isn’t – especially when you can unite on a joint project instead of meeting each other directly. Over the weeks and months of the lessons and on-camera conversations, individually and together, an unexpectedly affecting portrait of their relationship—past (“Yelling and anger,” says Melanie, “of fear”), present, and hint of the future—emerges. .
It’s the feeling that the yelling, the anger and the fear have disappeared rather than being purged or processed. Like most families faced with sudden illness or disability, they did the best they could in a crisis with the tools at their disposal, putting everything into finding a diagnosis—which took years—and trying to adjust each time a new piece of the puzzle arrived. in place. Joe’s youth, when he would undoubtedly have butted heads with his father anyway, and John’s career added its own complications. Only now does the family—whose love for each other is unspoken but palpable throughout—have the mental and emotional resources to look around and see if a new set of tools might serve them better.
John and Joe’s first BSL lesson brings their first laugh together. They are both embarrassed by the facial expression required to follow signing. But Joe is fascinated by the self-assured uncertainty of their deaf teacher, Bob. “He has a good vibe. It was nice to see. Because I’m not proud of not hearing very well, to tell you the truth.” When John stands slightly behind him, he looks stricken. “Maybe,” he says later, without Joe, “if someone had given us a positive message earlier, we wouldn’t have done the things we’ve done … We can’t get those lost years back.”
While we see Joe getting involved via Bob and a Deaf pub night (“The image I’ve had of hearing loss isn’t people in a pub,” he says, looking around at all the young people, signing people in wonder) and a deaf football team, becomes program a study not just of a family’s dynamics, but of broader cultural attitudes, of how much disability is socially constructed and how much power we have to embrace or reject different messages.
My advance copy doesn’t include footage of the signed gig John eventually does, but that doesn’t matter. Here the personal – honest, open, clear testimony – gives way to petty politics to produce an uplifting, thought-provoking piece that makes absolutely everyone involved proud.