Used subtitles to watch The Wire? The writer says that's just criminal

So you thought the subtitles button was the best way to decipher the acclaimed US crime series? Wrong. You've turned genius into comedy, its writer tells Arifa Akbar

Ever since drugs lord Stringer Bell picked up his burner and ordered a re-up for his corner hoppers, bemused Brits addicted to the Baltimore-based police drama The Wire have been reaching for the subtitles button to figure out what on earth is being said.

The series may have garnered critical recognition for its unflinching realism and searing dialogue, but the street argot spoken by its characters – most of whom are black American drug dealers and street-wise detectives – has left many viewers straining to make sense of the dialogue.

Now, one of the central writers of the show has lashed out at those who turn on the subtitles, rendering the show a "comedy" rather than the gritty, intelligent drama he intended it to be.

The seasoned detective fiction writer George Pelecanos, who has worked extensively on The Wire – which was originally an HBO series but is currently being shown on BBC2 – said those who watched with subtitles in order to comprehend every sentence spoken were missing the point entirely.

"We wrote it so audiences would have to work at it!" he said in an interview with The Independent.

"We were not going to compromise in making it immediately accessible for everyone.

"It [subtitling] kind of reminds me of scenes from that [1980 disaster film spoof] comedy, Airplane!, when two black guys speak, and subtitles appear on the screen."

Pelecanos, an American of Greek origin worked most intensively on the second of the five series programme which is based around longshoremen and the Greek mafia. He was brought aboard by the show's creator, David Simon.

When The Wire was first aired on BBC2 earlier this year, a flurry of middle-class commentators criticised the impenetrable dialogue and admitted seeking help.

The columnist India Knight wrote: "I have friends who have been addicted to The Wire for ages but I didn't see the point, despite having watched the pilot twice, because I could never understand what anyone was saying... Then someone lent me a box set and suggested I turn on the subtitles."

Ms Knight went on to effuse about the show, but added a note of caution: "I implore you to watch it... but please take my advice and turn on the subtitles – they make all the difference."

A Daily Mail critic, meanwhile, observed the "mumbled patois of the Baltimore dealers", adding: "Most people I know – and these are people in their mid 30s – prefer to watch The Wire with the subtitles switched on."

Even some of the characters have had difficulties with mastering the script. In the "extras" section of the show's box set, several actors admit to problems understanding the Baltimore drawl in some interviews.

JD Williams, the New York actor who plays a character, Bodie Broadus, who "runs a corner" (facilitates the open air drug market), said he found some of the phraseology confusing.

And the Eton-educated lead actor Dominic West, who plays the detective Jimmy McNulty, said in an interview earlier this year that his late father, who was alive for the first two years that The Wire aired, "couldn't handle the language" in the show, "so he didn't really watch it".

West added: "My mum managed five minutes. My wife has managed 10 minutes of episode one about five times and falls asleep."

The BBC, which began broadcasting the series at the end of March this year, makes subtitles available for viewers, but a spokeswoman said this was the case for every programme broadcast by the Corporation, in order to help deaf viewers.

The last episode of the final, fifth series will be broadcast on BBC2 later this week.

Baltimore talk Lost in translation?

*The hopper from Balmer carrying a burner

A child drug dealer from Baltimore is carrying a disposable mobile telephone used by drug dealers to stop the police monitoring their conversations.

*Crew up with corner boys for a re-up

An instruction to form a team of young men who can sell drugs on a street corner when a re-up, or a re-stock package from drugs wholesalers, arrives.

*The G pack

A wholesaler's package of 100 vials of cocaine

*He's a Yo

Police term for a corner boy.

*The civilian's carrying weight

An ordinary person who is neither a drug dealer nor an addict who has been served a custodial sentence.

*The Game

Life of a drug dealer in which the dealer accepts a distinct set of ethics in which even apparently minor transgressions may be punishable by death.

*There's been a humble

An arrest or search of a corner boy on flimsy or no evidence, intended merely to humiliate.

*Stash house

A heavily guarded property in which drugs are stored and cut.

*Those Red tops/blue tops/yellow tops are worth a lot of cheese

The colour-coded vials of cocaine (use to identify quality) are worth a lot of money.

*He's not a fiend, he's slinging

He's not a drug addict, he's selling drugs.

*Walk-around money

Petty cash used by corrupt politicians for the purposes of persuasion on election day.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering