Sound technicians at the BBC have reacted angrily to the suggestion that they are at fault for the long-running problem of mumbled dialogue in television shows.
The issue has returned this week with a wave of complaints from viewers over the inaudibility of Jamaica Inn, the eagerly awaited BBC1 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel.
The audience for the second instalment on Tuesday evening fell by 1.5m following more than 100 complaints over the sound quality of the initial instalment.
The BBC had worked hard to improve the sound for the second episode but technical experts said there were still problems.
Representatives of the broadcast union Bectu are to make representations to BBC management amid fears that sound engineers are being unfairly stigmatised for what it claims is “an artistic issue” and is the responsibility of actors, presenters and directors.
Ian Sands, vice chair of the Sound Branch of Bectu’s London Production Division, told The Independent that the performances in Jamaica Inn had been regarded as “challenging” by those recording the drama. “In this instance the general understanding amongst my colleagues is that this is an artistic issue.”
As viewers – including television stars such as Al Murray and Strictly Come Dancing presenter Arlene Phillips – began tweeting frustration on Monday evening at not being able to hear the words in Jamaica Inn, Emma Frost, who wrote the screenplay for the drama, came forward on the social media to try and explain the problem, suggesting that a technical fault rather than a failing by the cast 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.
In a statement of apology, the BBC said: “There were issues with the sound levels last night and for technical reasons they could not be altered during transmission.”
Mr Sands noted that Ms Frost “probably knows the script backwards” and disputed her interpretation. “Low level mumbled lines are not a technical issue they are an artistic issue,” he said. “Many Directors, and it may not be the case here, are very reluctant to tackle actors about their performance. That is their job but too often they will leave it to other colleagues to point out the challenges of ineligibility. If the Director accepts it, that's where the buck stops.
The final sound balance for transmission is ‘signed off’ by the Director and any adjustments and balance are done to the Directors requirements, whether they happen to be right or not.”
The director of Jamaica Inn is the Bafta-winning and greatly admired Philippa Lowthorpe, whose production credits include the TV movies The Other Boleyn Girl and Beau Brummell: This Charming Man and several episodes of the popular BBC period drama series Call the Midwife.
Mr Sands said professional mixers have been fighting hard to persuade production colleagues to think of the audience and remember that “the home listening environment is nothing like the high quality environment where the final mix takes place”.
He said it was wrong to assume that technological advances in television sets automatically made programmes easier to hear at home. “With new flat screen television sets the speakers have been reduced in size and quality to less than a third of those in old sets, and to further challenge viewers the speakers are usually pointing the wrong way, either at the wall or the floor.”
The problems with Jamaica Inn are embarrassing to the BBC’s Director General Lord Hall who promised that the broadcaster would resolve the sound issue over complaints involving other expensive productions.
Speaking last July, Lord Hall said: “I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at. Actors muttering can be testing - you find you have missed a line... you have to remember that you have an audience.”
Complaints were made over the indistinct dialogue of lavish drama productions including Tom Stoppard’s otherwise acclaimed BBC2 adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End – starring Benedict Cumberbatch - in 2012 and the BBC1 adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong the same year.
But the problem is not restricted to drama and the BBC had to re-edit the Brian Cox science series Wonders of the Universe after viewers complained that the commentary was drowned out by the soundtrack.