Why is it so hard to hear the dialogue in TV dramas?

Sound problems or actors mumbling? Dodgy technology or poor quality audio recording? We investigate the returning problem 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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‘Actors do not enunciate as they once did’

Bafta-winning sound recordist Simon Clark says part of the issue is that television is becoming more ‘naturalistic’, meaning actors are doing everything they can to avoid ‘speaking up’.

In a break away from traditional theatre techniques, acting on TV is less performative, potentially making dialogue less clear. Clark, who worked on the BBC’s Wolf Hall, says that the “pendulum has swung” from one extreme – theatrical voice projection – to another – natural dialogue. Or, if you want to put it less kindly, “mumbling”.

“In the old days, everybody spoke as if they were standing on stage and projecting to the back of the theatre,” Clark explains. “It was a style. If you watch any film that was made at the birth of the talkies, any time in the 1930s and 40s, you will hear this declaiming, artificially loud style.

“Then we got better at it and the pendulum started to swing. It swung at one time to the mid point when everyone spoke fairly naturally but clearly. But the pendulum has continued to swing… so people do not speak up or enunciate as they once did – which is referred to as naturalism.”

Naturalism was certainly a priority in Jamaica Inn: the Cornish-set drama received thousands of complaints in 2014 because viewers couldn’t hear what was being said, but the problem of poor sound was perhaps compounded by unfamiliar accents. The same could be argued when it comes to Yorkshire-set Happy Valley, which also faced complaints over inaudible dialogue last year. Drama bosses are, rightfully, becoming more ambitious about where they set their stories – but they need to make sure viewers are able to make the journey with them.

However, SS-GB is set in London, featuring accents which aren’t exactly unheard-of on TV. So, should we look instead at star Sam Riley’s raspy, breathy delivery?

Daisy Goodwin, the creator of ITV’s Victoria, thinks Riley made an “artistic” choice with his voice, because he is playing an ambiguous character working for the police force in Nazi-occupied Britain. “If an actor makes a choice about how they’re going to play a role, it’s very hard to make them change their mind about that,” she told Radio 4’s Today programme, “and if you say, ‘Speak up’, they say, ‘That’s not what my character would do.’”

As a sound recordist on set, it is part of Simon Clark’s job to alert the director if dialogue is difficult to hear or understand. It is then at the director’s discretion whether they decide to act on it.

Clark explains that there can be a “disconnect between the people on the technical side and the people on the artistic side”. He says he has once had an actor who refused to speak up because they were under the common misconception that however they spoke Clark would be able to pick it up.

“The sound man should always hold sway”

So, who should have the last word when it comes to how TV dramas sound, directors or sound recordists? In 2014, deputy TV editor David Butcher got to “the heart of the mutter” in a comment piece for Radio Times, saying it was the director’s job to get actors to speak clearly.

For TV presenter Richard Madeley, one of the viewers on Sunday night furious with SS-GB’s “muffled dialogue”, the answer is clear. “I think the sound man should always hold sway. That’s his job,” he tells RadioTimes.com. “It’s a bit like a flight engineer saying to the pilot, ‘I don’t think we’ve got enough fuel for this flight, Captain’ and the pilot saying, ‘Well, yeah, but I quite fancy going this way.’ You’ve got to listen to your sound man.”

But what about post-production? Can’t the sound engineer just turn down the background noise and turn up the dialogue?

“If the sound man says we can’t hear this properly, that’s a problem. You can’t fix that in the edit. It seems to me to be so unprofessional not to take the advice of a sound technician – it seems to me the height of arrogance,” says Madeley.

Interestingly, it is often the sound recordists and engineers who get most of the blame for “rotten recordings”, says Clark, “but what you hear is an absolutely perfect representation of what happened on the set… I can’t defy the laws of physics.”

Jamaica Inn ended with 2,200 complaints about mumbling

It seems that nobody on screen should be too precious not to receive constructive criticism of their delivery; Madeley illustrates this with a story about when he interviewed Margaret Thatcher just after she’d stepped down as Prime Minister. “I asked my first question and she started to answer, and immediately the sound guy, a very ordinary guy, said ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ – not ‘Excuse me, Mrs Thatcher’ – and the former prime minister immediately stopped,” says Madeley, explaining how he went on to adjust the sound. “In other words, the sound guy had full control.”

Ian Mckellen, too, has urged actors to speak up in the past. “Whether it’s film, TV, radio, theatre or Shakespeare, the first responsibility for any actor is to the audience,” he told the Mirror. “They should not only be able to hear clearly but also understand clearly.

“I’m always saying ‘Why don’t these actors speak up?’ If it’s on television I have to turn up the sound.

“But you have to be heard. Mumbling happens if an actor isn’t absolutely certain about what he or she is doing. They feel the easiest way out is not to commit themselves too much and say it very, very quietly.

“No! You have to speak out loud. As Hamlet says to the players, ‘Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly upon the tongue’.”

‘We can hear the news, we can hear commercials – why not dramas?’

In the past, people have often cited changing television technology and poor speakers as an explanation for inaudible drama.

There is the argument that sound recordists and engineers are listening to the action with pitch-perfect equipment, and that “domestic” TVs are just not up to scratch.

Madeley isn’t buying it: “Quite often, either the production company or in this case the BBC will say ‘Maybe certain viewers’ televisions aren’t quite attuned, they need to make adjustments’. Well, what I’d say to them is, ‘No no, excuse me, our TVs are fine – we can hear the news, we can hear quiz shows, we can hear commercials, we can hear everything coming out of the screen, but when we get to a prestige drama like this we just can’t hear it.”

In fact, many sound engineers will roll in an old telly to try to emulate what the final edit will sound like to people in their living rooms. However, at this stage all that can really be done is to ask the actor to re-record the lines and dub them over the original moving image, which can appear clumsy on screen.

Clark, however, acknowledges that “domestic” TV viewing conditions are far from ideal: “We’re sitting on the sofa at a 45-degree angle to the flat screen telly on the other side of the room, the kettle’s boiling and someone’s just rung the phone.”

‘Thin televisions sacrifice sound quality’

Factor in a flat screen TV with speakers squeezed into an ever-decreasing space and the situation becomes even worse. Becky Roberts, a staff writer for home entertainment guide What Hi-Fi?, says that in the past few years the aesthetic of flat screen TVs has been a priority over audio quality.

“The sound side has taken a back seat,” she says, explaining that 4K and HDR is widely accessible but “because TVs are on the pursuit of thinness they sacrifice the sound, so they are putting built-in speakers in thinner and thinner frames.

“We have got panels now that are just millimetres thick, so there is not really room for big speakers that can deliver full-bodied, clear sounds.” Roberts concedes that the “big four” technology companies – Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and LG – are recognising this issue and focussing on improving sound.

Many SS-GB viewers said on Twitter that they had resorted to subtitles to understand the drama. Victoria’s Daisy Goodwin argued that this way of watching actually keeps people engaged with a show, like a Scandi drama, as viewers can’t look away or play on their phone. Madeley on the other hand brands the subtitle option for understanding British dramas “ridiculous”.

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?