Frustrated viewers might be excused for wondering if BBC executives are themselves hard of hearing after BBC1’s Jamaica Inn became the latest victim in the long-running saga of audiences not being able to hear the words in expensively-produced drama productions.
The BBC issued an apology after receiving more than 100 complaints when “issues with the sound levels” undermined the much-anticipated opening instalment of the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel.
Some viewers who were struggling to follow the dialogue may have been relieved to have seen on Twitter that numerous high-profile television figures were experiencing similar difficulties. Arlene Phillips, choreographer and former judge on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing, asked if others were experiencing similar difficulties. “Did anyone else have trouble hearing BBC One Jamaica Inn”
The TV comedian Al Murray quipped: “Find out what happens next in Jamaica Inn by getting your ears syringed!”
John Challis, who plays the character “Boycie” in BBC1’s sitcom Only Fools and Horses and ought to be familiar with the intricacies of broadcast drama, also voiced his frustration: “Jamaica Inn LOOKS very good but I haven't heard a single word...Either the actors are mumbling or the sound track is faulty.”
Emma Frost, who wrote the screenplay for the drama, came forward 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.
The BBC apologised and said great efforts were being made to ensure the problems did not spoil the rest of the series. A spokesperson said: “There were issues with the sound levels last night and for technical reasons they could not be altered during transmission. We are adjusting the dialogue levels in episode two and three to address audience concerns so they can enjoy the rest of the drama and would like to apologise to those viewers who were affected.”
The BBC pointed out that a large audience of 6.1 million had watched the first episode of Jamaica Inn, which features Jessica Brown Findlay, one of the stars of the hit ITV drama Downton Abbey.
The controversy over Jamaica Inn is particularly embarrassing for the BBC because it comes a year after the Director General Lord Hall identified the issue as one that the broadcaster needed to address.
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.
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.”
He promised that the broadcaster was looking into the matter.
The problem of inaudible speech has been a bugbear of television drama audiences since at least 2009 when this newspaper reported that the then-controller of BBC1 Jay Hunt had agreed to work with an independent study into the issue after she was approached by the campaigning group, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer.
That followed complaints surrounding the popular Baltimore-based drama The Wire, which was initially shown in Britain by the BBC, and the retro dramas Mad Men and Ashes to Ashes.
Danny Cohen, another former BBC1 Controller and now the BBC’s Director of Television, has also expressed his determination to address the problem and said in 2011 that “comprehensive best practice guidance” had been issued to producers to “make clear well-crafted television sound”.