Our 20th anniversary reminds me I’ve watched an awful lot of TV for a living, while at the same time having had the privilege of being part of something from the very start. Back in 2000, we evolved from experimental beginnings; with three Audio Describers transmitting to an audience of 50 people with specially adapted receivers, while working on just a handful of programmes each week. In those days, our allocations were scrawled on our legendary whiteboard, which listed the programmes we were describing and mapped out where they were in the production process.

One early regular was the BBC soap EastEnders. Episode 1027 aired on 4th September 2000 and was the first to carry AD. According to the BBC Genome synopsis, it involved: “lan’s misguided affections pushing Laura to breaking point and Dot indulging Ethel with an evening out.” Our very first description was:

In their bedroom, Dot gently removes a hanky from Ethel’s hand. Ethel is asleep. Dot looks weary. She moves to the side of the room and kneels down.

To date, we’ve described a whopping 5,100 episodes and narrated many of the big reveals, keeping our audience part of a national conversation on important matters like who really did kill Dirty Den?

Today, we’re international, with teams in different countries working and collaborating on hundreds of programmes a week, while playing out on multiple platforms to a potential audience of, well, everyone – and all at the touch of a button. In our archive, we have the AD for a staggering 100,000 programmes – and every single one has involved the efforts of a gifted writer and talented voicer to tell the visual story of that content. Programmes that once required days or even weeks to prepare can now be turned around within hours of transmission and, when required, split between colleagues across several locations.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve helped define Audio Description, pushed boundaries and been pioneers. Working with our client, Channel 4, we’ve taken over an entire channel to provide live AD commentary on the Paralympics opening ceremony; we’ve described an archive of over 200 films on the theme of disability for the BFI and worked on sports documentaries for BT Sport; we’ve also kept our audience in touch with the latest happenings in Erinsborough and Summer Bay by describing Neighbours and Home And Away for Five. We’ve even provided AD for an interactive walk-through at the Dr Who Experience, using our experience and knowledge of the show to offer accessibility in a different, exciting way.

Balancing the intentions of programme makers, our clients’ priorities and the needs of our audience informs everything we do. Our editorial guidelines are our bedrock, providing consistency and maintaining quality, but they also have to adapt to changing times and new horizons. With the explosion of streaming services, content may no longer be country-specific, but localisation is important to audiences, so we tailor our scripts accordingly. This means understanding the detail: that candy floss in the UK is cotton candy in the US and fairy floss in Australia. One editorial area we’re currently revisiting is how we describe race. Is the “only when it’s relevant” approach good enough when content itself can be more nuanced, and when visibility of minorities is important to how we reflect the communities and the world we live in?

AD’s journey at Red Bee has also been mine. I’ve been describing for nearly half my life. When I started in London with Jez Firth, Elena Sadler and Scott Hammond (colleagues to this day, with 80 years of describing experience between us) I was fresh off the plane from Scotland. I’ve now been home-based for many years but in between I’ve worked in offices in Glasgow and London, hot-desked in Edinburgh, trained – in person and remotely – scripters and voicers in Germany, Spain, the US and Australia. I still have an enthusiasm for the service and a love of what I do that hasn’t left me since Day 1. I feel incredibly lucky. People who work in audio description are behind-the-scenes and yet our voices play out in living rooms every day and will be incredibly familiar to our audiences.
We had plans to celebrate in London but Covid-19 has put paid to that, so I’d like to say Happy 20th Birthday, Audio Description, and raise a virtual toast to all the dedicated and incredible people I work with and who make our world-class service what it is:

Gary Bakewell, Iain Black, Lewis Caffrey, Seoras Campbell, Michael Castleton, Pauline Cavilla, Jim Clare, Dan Eastman, Jez Firth, Kevin Geldard, Scott Hammond, Jasmin Jackson, Andrew Kerr, Ed May, Rhiann McAlister, Sally Nevrkla, Helene Parry, Sagar Patel, Ben Pennington, Alicia Pitts, Benjamin Quain, Georgina Rose, Adam Robinson, Elena Sadler, Niki Stevens, Justin Tan, Antony Urbanowski, Adam Watkins, Dave Webb, Ian Williams and Simon Williams – here’s to the next 20 years!

Marie Campbell, Audio Describer at Red Bee.