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BBC documentary on aphasia airs this Sunday

Imagine a world in which you can think but cannot speak. For many stroke survivors this nightmare is a reality; this Sunday their story is told in an intensely moving and personal film about language and its loss.

Speechless, made by award-winning filmmaker Richard Alwyn at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery over the past year, airs on BBC4 this Sunday, World Stroke Day (29 October) at 8pm.

Richard, who is also a senior tutor on the MA in Documentary Filmmaking at the UCL Department of Anthropology, witnessed the impact of aphasia first hand after his brother-in-law, the journalist Dennis Barker, had a stroke in 2011 which left him speaking a bizarre, fluent gibberish.

Richard said: “When Dennis had his stroke, it affected his language only, leaving him speaking a colourful but impenetrable language of his own, with all the rise and fall of familiar speech but none of the actual meaning. It was a terrible situation for Dennis and his family, and I wanted to learn more about aphasia and the role of language in people’s lives.”

Speechless tells the powerful stories of two men who can no longer take language for granted. The film also allows us to glimpse the impact of such a life-changing condition not just on patients but also their loved ones.

BRC supported Dr Rachel Farrell, a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, who features in the programme, said: “The documentary is fascinating and moving, upsetting and uplifting in its depiction of the isolating condition of aphasia.” Dr Farrell’s fellow consultants Professor Alexander Leff (aphasia) and Jacqueline McIntosh (speech and language therapy) also feature.

Speechless raises questions that straddle philosophy and science. Can we understand the world if we don’t have language to name and describe it? Can we think without language? How much is our identity wrapped up in language? These questions are at the heart of conversations that Alwyn has with clinicians and therapists working to get patients with aphasia back into the world.

Professor Leff said: “Aphasia is an unpleasant condition that hits patients and their loved-ones hard. We all get a tiny insight into it when we experience ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon; that is, when you momentarily can’t find the word (often someone’s name) that you are after. But imagine having that every time you wanted to speak. We are working hard here at UCLH and UCL to come up with therapies that make meaningful inroads into this disorder.”

You can read more about ‘Speechless’ on the BBC website.