Earlier this year the BBC had to deal with complants that the dialogue in the drama series Jamaica Inn was difficult to hear because the actors were mumbling. This week the writer Andrew Davies said that his wife had needed subtitles to understand his latest drama ‘Quirke’!
So does this constitute another crisis for the BBC to deal with? Can we officially name this ‘Mumblegate’? Well I don’t think this is a BBC issue specifically. Whilst these two dramas seem to have been more noticeably indistinct than most, it is a more general problem that has been around for a while. There are three factors at play here, it’s not just the fault of the actors:
The speakers in flat screen speakers are massively inferior to cathode ray tube sets. This is the price we pay for them being flat – they have no depth in which to put a decent speaker ‘cone’. The speakers often don’t even face forwards but are on the back and bounce the sound back off the wall into the room. No wonder the sound is weak and muffled as a result. As with the move from vinyl to CD and from CD to MP3, we have sacrificed audio quality in the name of convenience. The expectation is that anyone who cares about sound will invest in separate speakers, which is what I have reluctantly had to do.
Modern directors over-use and over-amplify dramatic music. Dramas are scored like Hollywood movies but are actually watched in living rooms, not acoustically optimised cinemas. It is a bugbear of mine that nowadays the actors can’t be left to convey the drama, the music also has to emotionally manipulate us to feel happy or full of foreboding. It’s then mixed it into the soundtrack in state-of-the-art expensive studios and sounds great, but it’s then broadcast via poor quality speakers and the actors voices battle against deafening music designed for Dolby 5.1 surround sound but actually heard in tinny near-mono. Whereas we are hearing the dialogue for the first time, those mixing it already know what is being said. As Davies comments: “I could hear it because I knew what the words were and I think that’s often the problem with the people in the production … When you know what the lines are, there’s a tendency to think you’ve heard them alright whereas if you didn’t know the thing, maybe you wouldn’t.”
Accents and diction. Clearly enunciating dialogue in a BBC English accent is very ‘old school’, regional accents and mumbling are in. Most of us mumble in real life, so arguably actors are just doing their job and reflecting our own poor diction.
Add these three together and we get the Doctor and Clara pirouetting manically around each other in the TARDIS, firing off unclear dialog at each other at a thousand miles an hour, whilst the National Orchestra of Wales attempts to tell us how we would be feeling at this point if only we could hear the dialogue in the first place, all delivered to most people via speakers with a dynamic range only slightly better than a walkie-talkie. Don’t worry though, because we can buy the DVD or watch the repeats on BBC 3 to catch up on the witticisms that we missed the first time.
The Beatles early hits were mixed deliberately to sound good not in the studio but on mono transistor radios. Nowadays some dance producers are similarly forgoing bass in order to have the percussion sound optimal on tinny smartphone speakers. However in our tech-obsessed industry it is unlikely a TV producer would be brave enough to do something similar and mix dialogue and soundtrack to sound OK on the poor flat screen speakers most of us use. The tiny minority of the country (including all TV execs) that had invested in decent speakers for their flat screen TVs would be up in arms.