Mumblers: don’t blame the sound engineer!

The principle role of an actor is to be audible and understood. It was therefore very amusing when I heard that the BBC had received many complaints about the actors mumbling in the first episode of Jamaica Inn. Here is a report from the Telegraph.

woman hearing

Twitter went into meltdown with comments about the drama and the production:

Comedian Al Murray was among those attempting to make out what was being said by the stars of the atmospheric drama.

“Find out what happens next in Jamaica Inn by getting your ears syringed!,” he wrote on Twitter.

Choreographer and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips wrote on the social networking site: “Did anyone else have trouble hearing BBC1 Jamaica Inn.”

John Challis, known for his role as Boycie in Only Fools and Horses, wrote: “Jamaica Inn LOOKS very good but I haven’t heard a single word … Either the actors are mumbling or the sound track is faulty.”

A viewer wrote: “Oh dear I know BBC1 is keen on authentic but the dialogue in Jamaica Inn is incomprehensible.”

Another complained: “Jamaica Inn mumble mumble. Couldn’t understand a word of innkeeper. Terrible.”

Emma Frost, who wrote the screenplay, suggested that a technical fault, rather than the way that the cast delivered the lines, was to blame. “No surprises here – I’m told there was a major sound problem for tonight’s broadcast of Jamaica Inn – not surprised you couldn’t hear it,” she wrote. (Maybe she was being diplomatic)..

I had seen the cast list before the broadcast: I love Daphne Du Maurier; I love Jamaica Inn and personally was disappointed by the casting. Some of the cast members I had seen before, already had mumbling problems…. I watched a little snippet last night and yes, there were problems with audibility, which couldn’t be blamed on the sound mix or engineers. In other words the actors weren’t speaking clearly when they delivered their lines. Sound levels of the dialogue could be turned up BUT if the actors number – and their diction is poor, it is still difficult to understand what they are saying.

The production was trying to be authentic, by using local dialects, which was, of course, preferable to the cast sounding as though they came from Berkshire. However, in a drama, you have to modify everything: from lighting, dress, timings AND the accents to make them clearer for the audience. If you deliver lines in an accent – and I mean any accent – you have to modify the sound and ensure your diction is clear, to make it EASY for your audience to listen and understand you. Another BBC drama where “regional accents” were used was Peaky Blinders, although the accents were so bad that people from Birmingham couldn’t understand the Brummie accents and it became a laughing joke in the region.

I am sure you have met people at events; colleagues; people speaking on the telephone; at meetings; in shops etc, who MUMBLE. It is really annoying and I certainly give up and switch off my mind when these people speak. They might not be quietly spoken, but are very unclear, or even lazy when they speak. We have to work very hard to listen to them.

Professional actors, who are paid well to appear in dramas like Jamaica Inn, SHOULD be able to speak clearly EVEN if they have to adopt a dialect. In the ‘Old Days’ of acting, most actors were on the stage, and had to train to project their voices in the theatre, rather like opera singers do. It is a very similar technique. Of course they had ‘boomy’ voices but this was because they developed the technique to do this, as well as projecting their personality and presence to an audience – even those at the back of the Upper Circle, without relying on sound enhancement. Due to there being far more work in films and TV, most of the training at Drama School is focused on developing techniques to succeed in those media, although, of course you still need to speak clearly.

It is nearly a year since BBC director general Tony Hall said the corporation could look at how to stop actors “muttering” in its TV dramas. ”I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at,” he said. “Actors muttering can be testing – you find you have missed a line … you have to remember that you have an audience.” And no, I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old woman, but he does have a point. And a point that we should all remember: you have an audience when you speak!

About the author

Susan Heaton Wright is a former opera singer who works with successful individuals and teams to make an impact with their voices and physical presence. Using her experience in using the voice and performing on stage, she works with people to improve their performances in a range of business situations; from meeting skills and on the telephone, to public speaking, presentations and appearing on the media.

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