Mumblegate: It's a director's job to get every actor to speak clearly

After Jamaica Inn, broadcasters must listen, says David Butcher

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Mumblegate: It's a director's job to get every actor to speak clearly
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A wealth of nonsense has been talked about TV drama audibility in the past few weeks - almost as much nonsense, in fact, as nasty Uncle Joss appeared to be talking in Jamaica Inn. In both cases, a little clarity wouldn’t hurt. So I’ll try to enunciate, keep background noise to a minimum and get to what I’ll shamelessly call “the heart of the mutter”.

It’s a shambles when a big-budget serial like Jamaica Inn, the BBC’s top Easter treat, is discussed not for its moving performances or piercing story but for the fact that listening to the dialogue became, as one RT reader observed, “a guessing game”. She wasn’t alone: the issue prompted one of our biggest postbags in a decade.

Writer Emma Frost, the actors and production team toiled for months on Jamaica Inn. They and their BBC commissioners will be mortified it became a national joke: thousands of viewers complained; newspapers picked up the story with glee (never miss a chance to knock the BBC); the Corporation’s head of drama Ben Stephenson was forced to defend his production without appearing to minimise the issue or point the finger. There was a lot of hand-wringing and talk of “technical issues” but as the dust settles, it’s time to learn lessons: they’ve never been clearer.

For a proper, full-on fiasco like this, you need many factors to come together and in this case Jamaica Inn’s Cornish smugglers fell victim to a perfect storm. First (but not necessarily most importantly, as we’ll see), there’s the question of e-nunc-i-a-tion. 

Now Sean Harris is a tremendous actor. If you want a nasty piece of work, he’s your man. Equally mesmerising playing Moors murderer Ian Brady or a killer on the rampage in Southcliffe, Harris is tailor-made for the part of Joss Merlyn. But he is no theatrical ac-torr. He’s more of an intense, methody type, known to growl his lines out. (Here he was, after all, playing an alcoholic rural smuggler, not a bishop.) “A voice like rolling gravel” is how Alison Graham described it, but what sounds like rolling gravel on RT headphones can become muffled grit when it comes out of home TV sets with small speakers and “atmospheric” audio settings.

It’s a director’s job to get every actor to speak clearly: if a naturalistic style comes at the expense of being understood, it’s daft. But the key part of all this happens in between Harris saying (or swallowing) his lines and us listening at home. The process of blending the sounds of a programme is one most of us very sensibly never give a moment’s thought to. Until now...

It’s the last stage of post-production, after all the filming and picture editing. In the sound edit or “dub”, dozens of tracks are juggled: the “sync” dialogue recorded on location; sound effects that simulate background noise at a Cornish pub or clifftop; additional dialogue recorded in the studio; any voice-over; and crucially, the musical score. It's a fiendish process that takes days of costly work by people with fashionable haircuts in Soho. And sometimes it goes a bit wrong.

In the dub, everyone from the director to the sound editor has heard any given line of dialogue many, many times. They have a script in front of them. So crucially, they already know exactly what the actors are saying. They’re listening on big speakers in an acoustically perfect studio. They may also have the composer with them arguing that his particularly lovely music needs lifting a bit in the mix. In all this the director has to ensure the dialogue doesn’t get smothered.

We can't ignore another factor: people who make television are often in their 20s or 30s. The people who watch it are on average older (at least half are over 50), when it becomes a little harder to distinguish foreground and background sounds. TV needs to be mixed for the needs of viewers not programme makers.

Add all the above together and occasionally you get a mess like Jamaica Inn. It was exceptional but not a one-off (remember Birdsong?). To some it might seem a bit of a joke, a storm in a brandy barrel, but this issue bothers viewers day in, day out, and they complain in vast numbers. Following Jamaica Inn, broadcasters are drinking in the last chance saloon. When he arrived as director-general, Tony Hall assured RT he’d tackle this. It’s time he made good on his promise.