Hear the Silence

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Hear the Silence
Written by Timothy Prager
Directed by Tim Fywell
Starring Hugh Bonneville
Juliet Stevenson
Country of origin United Kingdom
Cinematography Ivan Strasburg
Running time 90 minutes
Budget £1 million
Original network Five
Original release December 15, 2003 (2003-12-15)

Hear the Silence is a 2003 semi-fictional TV drama based on the MMR vaccine controversy, which started when Andrew Wakefield published a paper claiming a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. It debuted on December 15, 2003 at 9 PM on the British network Five. The film, produced at a cost of about 1 million pounds, stars Hugh Bonneville as Wakefield and Juliet Stevenson as Christine Shields, a fictional mother who discovers the possible MMR-autism link when her son is diagnosed as autistic.[1] Stevenson's character begins telling doctor after doctor that her son seemed to develop autism soon after he received the MMR vaccine, but she does not receive any sympathy from them, nor does she receive any from her boss, or even her husband. However, this all changes when she meets Dr. Wakefield, who believes her statements about the MMR vaccine causing her son's autism.[2] The film then shows fictional government officials "plotting" Wakefield's "demise", which they intend to bring about by portraying his research as flawed. Although never documented in reality, the film depicts Wakefield being targeted by the government: his phone is tapped and his files are stolen.[3] The film attracted 1.2 million viewers on the first night it screened, considerably fewer than usual for Channel Five's films that debut at 9 PM, which often get more than 2 million viewers.[4]


The film received a lukewarm reception, with many critics arguing that it portrayed the purported MMR-autism link in a sympathetic light despite there being no scientific evidence to support the connection,[5] and that it idealized Dr. Wakefield and vilified the physicians who dismissed the vaccine-autism link by depicting them as "blatant caricatures."[2][6] Some parents who watched the film were scared about the possible consequences of having their children receive the MMR vaccine, but one of them told the Guardian they were still skeptical of the veracity of the tale told by the film. The mother in question, Jenny Ebanks, also expressed concern that MMR vaccination rates might drop as a result of the film's popularity. The other mother interviewed by the Guardian defended the film as "totally responsible", adding, "If it keeps the debate going I think it has to be seen as a good thing. So many people are worried about the possible links it is important that they are not just dismissed."[7]

Some commentators also criticized the film for being misleading or inaccurate, but nevertheless praised it for being entertaining. For example, Ben Goldacre the film was "moving and convincing" as a drama, but went on to criticize its factual accuracy, saying, "The only things that the writers of Hear the Silence get wrong, to be fair, are the science and the story."[8] Similarly, Kathryn Flett wrote in the Guardian that the film was "very well done but not, I think it's fair to say, designed to make you sleep easy if you'd just booked your toddler in for a nice big dose of the triple vaccine, a feeling that may have been compounded by the post-match heated debate which, stylistically, erred somewhat on the side of Kilroy even as it was chaired by the fragrant Kirsty Young."[9] In addition, David Aaronovitch wrote that while the film begins by saying that it is a "dramatised account of the work of Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital in the late 1990s," that is not in fact true. According to Aaronovitch, "Wakefield's own history is distorted, as are the opinions of his colleagues. No scientist is permitted to put a contrary case to that of the hero, though the vast majority of them believe he is wrong..."[3]


Many doctors invited to participate in a discussion about the MMR-autism link after the programme boycotted it instead, claiming it was misleading.[5] One of these doctors (David Salisbury, director of the British National Immunization Program) justified his decision to do so by saying that if he and his public health colleagues had appeared as the filmmakers had requested, "We felt we'd be giving respectability to a program that was not respectable."[10] 11 British doctors also wrote an open letter condemning the film, calling it "distorted" and "entirely unbalanced."[11] One of the letter's signatories, Great Ormond Street Hospital pediatrician David Elliman, also called the film "overly sentimental" and "potentially dangerous".[12] In response to such criticisms, Stevenson said, "Perhaps it was naive of me to think you could put out a film like that" and "I thought it was generating an interesting debate and that it gave a voice to those who needed a voice - parents who were told they didn't know anything."[13]


  1. ^ Wells, Matt (23 May 2003). "Five plans autism drama". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
  2. ^ a b Elliman, David (December 2003). "Hear the Silence". BMJ. 327: 1411. doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7428.1411-a. PMC 293044.
  3. ^ a b Aaronovitch, David (14 December 2003). "A travesty of truth". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
  4. ^ Deans, Jason (16 December 2003). "MMR row fails to stir audiences". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 May 2014.
  5. ^ a b Fitzpatrick, Michael (4 December 2003). "Hear the Silence". Spiked. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
  6. ^ Lawson, Mark (8 December 2003). "Saint Mum, Saint Doctor and the evil MMR". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
  7. ^ Taylor, Matthew (16 December 2003). "Mothers alarmed after TV MMR drama". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 May 2014.
  8. ^ Goldacre, Ben (11 December 2003). "Never mind the facts". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
  9. ^ Flett, Kathryn (20 December 2003). "Still little children suffer". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 May 2014.
  10. ^ Frankel, Glenn (11 July 2004). "Charismatic Doctor at Vortex of Vaccine Dispute". Washington Post. p. 3. Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  11. ^ "Medics slam 'distorted' MMR drama". BBC News. 15 December 2003. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
  12. ^ Martin, Nicole (13 December 2003). "TV drama on MMR 'could cost lives'". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  13. ^ "Juliet Stevenson: 'I would love a completely different life?'". Daily Telegraph. 18 February 2008. Retrieved 1 May 2014.