Subtitles


I am watching Foyle’s War. If you haven’t seen this brilliant (US: real good) detective show, then your life is not as good as it could be. It combines all of the things I love the most – World War II, historical backdrop, and the murder of a British person.

Burke, to say the least, does not share this interest. To her, a costume should be on a Disney character and a British accent should be on a mournful rich kid who’s recently gone skint. And if there’s one lesson I’ve learned about cohabitating with someone who isn’t a cat, it’s that you take little opportunities to watch shows you want to watch. Since the pandemic forces us to be home all the time, this is when she’s teaching in our office/storage room. This is when, amid songs about following rules and not stepping out of line thinly-veiled as pronunciation tunes, I cozy up to a British detective.  

It all started many years ago with Inspector Morse. I liked that there were no guns and that the detective, like Columbo, figured things out with sense rather than DNA and a world class laboratory. I liked the old wobbly BBC production value that looked as though it was done in my neighbor’s basement in 1987. And I loved that in Britain, people aren’t just murdered, they are absolutely torn to pieces. (Sometimes literally. One woman broke a mirror over a girl’s head and thrashed it back and forth, thus tearing her to shreds. She was upset because the girl was stealing her son, with whom she was having an incestual relationship. Tell me British TV isn’t awesome.) It’s as if the whole country’s TV bad guys are deep-whiskey-drunk pissed off about a bad cricket loss.  

I was perhaps six episodes into Morse when I realized that I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I could barely understand. Listen though I would, I still couldn’t pick up what was being said. British speakers of English have a completely different vocabulary, with a whole different set of idiomatic expressions, and put it all together in one of a variety of accents whose only uniting factor is that they all sound like someone mumbling the torah while eating peanut butter. On top of that, British plotting and dialogue are far more sparse than that of an American show. American characters are like Americans – direct, obvious, and profuse with their language. The Brits are indirect and they don’t say things that need to be said as much as they omit things that should have been said. And it’s tough to follow, because if you don’t know what’s been said, how the hell are you going to figure out what’s not been said?

Morse led to its sequel Lewis and then their prequel Endeavour (US: Endeavor). My UK English was careening towards proficient around then and I got cocky. I got most of Lewis and eschewed the subtitles.

It was when I moved on to Endeavour (US: Endeavor) that I needed subtitles for Fred Thursday. If you have never watched Endeavour (US: Endeavor) you should. It’s a prequel to Morse and takes place in the 60s-70s in Oxford. His Detective Inspector is Fred Thursday, a badass WWII vet who takes Morse under his wing. He is played by Roger Allam, who has perhaps the only deep, resonant voice that could fully round out Fred Thursday. This is coupled with a writer who gives him a wonderful variety of colorful (UK: colourful) phraseology. In the end, I was quite enamored with him, but didn’t know what the hell he was talking about half the time.

Fred Thursday idiomatic phraseology: You’d find something in a saint’s sock drawer. There’s more under my hat than nits. It’s like a tit in a wringer. Nowt a pound and shit’s tuppance (my favorite). Talking football with you is like showing the three-card trick to a dog.

So you can understand why some of these phrases might not be fully understood at first listen.    

Today, the music comes from the office.

This is how you brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth. This is how you brush your teeth, and not step out of line. (clear subtext: or you will be crushed like capitalist swine).

Meanwhile, Christopher Foyle verbally dispatches a retired MP in such an understated and subtly damning manner that I thought he was asking a butler for directions to the loo (US: the can).  

Thank goodness for the subtitles. And while Christopher Foyle leaves the house, gets in his car, has a brief exchange with his driver, (UK: no comma) and then leaves, I sit up and look closely at the subtitles to find out what he said to the MP.

You see, the subtitles on Foyle’s War are about two minutes behind the action. It’s a glitch in the system. And frankly, this sort of thing would normally send my OCD to watch the speaker’ ears while they talk (while saying the alphabet backwards). But this glitch allows me to figure out what’s going on. And so, two minutes later, I catch Foyle’s comments while Sam and her fiancé look at an old bomb shelter. And I say, “oh, he’s the guy who pretended he was a dear outside the gazebo.”

Subtitles are great. I use Czech subtitles to justify American sitcoms as Czech lessons. I use English subtitles on Czech movies and shows so when I tell Burke I understood what was said I am not completely lying. I use them on British detective shows so when they drag the baddie off to prison, I have a general understanding of why.

I wish we could use subtitles all the time in every place. I would love it if the cashier at the supermarket’s snarky comments were printed out in English beneath him. At least when he flips me off and calls me an asshole, I’ll have a general understanding of why.  

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