Why does yet another TV drama have mumbling dialogue – and what’s the solution?

Following the backlash against the BBC series SS-GB, we investigate the return of “Mumblegate”

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You might assume that a TV drama imagining 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation would be met with shock and upset. And you would be correct. But the shock and upset over new BBC1 drama SS-GB was not so much directed at the disturbing, dystopian themes, and more at the sheer inaudibility of the programme’s dialogue.

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SS-GB is the latest in a series of BBC dramas which has faced a backlash from viewers unable to hear dialogue clearly. “Mumblegate” has become a running issue in recent years, from Jamaica Inn and Happy Valley, to Rillington Place and SS-GB. 

During the broadcast of SS-GB’s first episode on Sunday night, Twitter was so full of demands for lead actor Sam Riley to “speak up!” and claims that viewers “couldn’t understand a word of it” that the BBC promised to check sound levels before the next instalment.

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Is it too late for SS-GB, or can we find a solution before next Sunday’s episode?

Roberts recommends that viewers who have flat screen TVs buy external speakers in the form of sound bars and sound bases – she also mentions that the sound settings in television sets are worth tinkering with to boost vocal performance.

But asking people to buy large and expensive speakers on top of their large and expensive televisions might not go down too well with viewers, especially as the BBC has been aware of “Mumblegate” for a long time. As far back as 2011, the then-controller of BBC1 Danny Cohen revealed in a BBC blog post, that the broadcaster had undertaken an extensive study into the issue, explaining that audibility is about a combination of background music, clarity of speech – namely mumbling or unfamiliar accents – and background noise such as traffic.

He proposed that many of the problems could be resolved “long before a single frame is shot” if more emphasis was placed on planning for clear sound. This includes the director taking sound into account when choosing a location, and putting a character who may be difficult to understand in vision so viewers can see their lips move.

Six years later, we’re still hearing the same old complaints loud and clear.

Following the complaints over SS-GB, the BBC said, “We take audibility seriously and we will look at the sound levels on the programme in time for the next episode.” 

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In the short term, viewers might have to put on the subtitles, fiddle with the sound modes on their TV and invest in external speakers. But in the long term, Richard Madeley urges an “industry-wide debate”. How much should clarity be sacrificed for naturalism? How can we make sure TV sound is as sharp as the HD screens? And is it really worth mumbling to create an atmosphere if you can’t hear what’s going on?