Rose Ayling-Ellis: "Now people are listening to me, I no longer have to compromise"
Rose is taking on a new challenge for the King's coronation.
This interview was originally published in Radio Time magazine.
On 13th November 2021, Rose Ayling-Ellis performed a poignant, beautiful dance on Strictly Come Dancing. Then, suddenly, the music stopped – but Ayling-Ellis and her partner Giovanni Pernice kept dancing and silence descended on the nation for a few hushed seconds. They were defining moments, not just for Strictly but for deaf people across Britain.
Now, Ayling-Ellis is to be part of another leap forward. She is helping to mentor Unify, an all-deaf sign performance group who use British Sign Language (BSL) to sign song lyrics and who, on Sunday 7th May, will be taking to the stage at the Windsor Castle coronation concert where Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Take That are among the star acts on the bill.
Unify will be performing alongside other community choirs and amateur singers, from a refugee ensemble and the Portishead RNLI sea shanty choir to reggae groups and London cabbies. All will come together in a 300-strong superchoir, led by choirmaster Gareth Malone. Their progress is captured in a one-off BBC documentary.
Ayling-Ellis has been deaf since birth but wears a hearing aid, meaning she can pick up some music and hear the beat – as she did on Strictly. “A lot of deaf people read the lyrics of a song and learn them,” she explains. Her own relationship with music started with her music-loving parents. “I love all sorts of music, but top of my list is seeing Dolly Parton live. And I’d love to go to Dollywood.”
Unify’s members are scattered across the country, so they are mostly rehearsing for the coronation concert online. Ayling-Ellis, talking to me over Zoom and using a BSL interpreter, has, however, met them for rehearsals in person. “I’ve been on telly in front of millions of people, so my role is to encourage them. But I’m not sure they need much advice from me, they’re already so confident,” she says. Unify proves deaf people have a voice, “just in a different way”.
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Rebecca A Withey, who runs Unify, says that “historically, music has been a taboo subject within the deaf community". She continues: "Deaf culture would say, ‘You’re deaf, you can’t like music.’ But increasingly, deaf people are accessing music, and it’s empowering. Of course, they experience it differently. I was born hearing and it deteriorated until I went profoundly deaf at 18, so I combine my memory of music with visual cues and vibrations. It’s not perfect, but my hearing aid has helped.”
Withey says there are “still plenty of nerves” in Unify at the prospect of performing at the coronation – the song choice won’t be unveiled until the day – partly because the stakes are high. “We have 34 regular performers, of which around 14 will be at the coronation. Our youngest member is in their early 20s and the oldest is 60.
"We have a wheelchair user and two members who are deaf-blind, which means we have to really work together to make sure everyone is comfortable and happy with the process. During the pandemic we felt sidelined because there were no interpreters for the deaf community [in lockdown]. Now a group of deaf people will be on stage in front of the King. It’s incredible. It’s a small step that says, ‘The deaf community is here.’”
Withey set up Unify after a TV producer got in touch with her last year, looking for a sign choir to perform for The National Lottery’s Big Jubilee Street Party. She has known Ayling-Ellis since the Strictly winner and former EastEnders actor was 15. “I went to Rose’s school to teach a drama workshop and she said she wanted to act.
"I told her to go for it. And then, there she was in the Strictly final! I watched it in an online chat with members of the deaf community and we couldn’t quite believe it – a deaf person on primetime television!”
Ayling-Ellis met King Charles and Strictly fan Queen Camilla when they visited the EastEnders set in March last year. “They both signed ‘Good morning’, which was lovely.”
The fact that Ayling-Ellis was Strictly’s first deaf contestant and won the show doesn’t mean she’s happy with the way television treats deaf people. Last August, she delivered the Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival and was candid about her experience as “the poster girl for the deaf community”, pointing out that some of her favourite TV shows aren’t subtitled and noting that having a disability is not a barrier. “I am disabled because I live and work in a world that disables me,” she told the audience.
But there has been progress – after the Strictly final, the demand for online BSL courses rose by 4,000 per cent and the BSL Act was passed last year to recognise BSL as a language and to promote its use more widely.
Ayling-Ellis’s “lifetime project” is to get BSL taught in schools, but in the meantime the Coronation Concert is a step in the right direction. She says: “It’s such a cool way of showing all these different people who represent the UK; I can’t wait to see all the other choirs perform. And it’s great that the coronation will have a BSL interpreter.”
The coronation is to be fully accessible, with a signed version on BBC Two. “There’s a long way still to go, but it’s very exciting that all this change is happening.”
She has just finished filming a BBC documentary in which she explores the daily challenges, barriers and discriminations faced by deaf individuals. “EastEnders and Strictly were great opportunities to show the industry what deaf people can do – now people are listening to me, I no longer have to compromise.”
Sing for the King: The Search for the Coronation Choir airs tonight at 8pm on BBC One. Check out more of our Entertainment coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what else is on.