Jamaica Inn and why all programmes need subtitles

I can’t understand anything on TV. So let’s do away with the volume and put subtitles on everything

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The Independent Online

A friend of mine went to the doctor recently, terrified by the sudden appearance of luminescent white spots, like toxic sequins, on his scrotum. After innumerable tests, the doctor wrote to say he had white spots on his scrotum. My friend wondered if the condition had a name. White spots on the scrotum, the doctor told him.

I was reminded of this last week when reading about viewers complaining to the BBC that they couldn’t hear a word of what the actors in the new period drama Jamaica Inn were saying. After lowering herself deep into the whys and wherefores of what had gone wrong, Philippa Lowthorpe, the director of Jamaica Inn, came back up with an explanation that left nothing further to be explained: there was, she said, “a sound issue”. So “that’s all good then”, to borrow a phrase from Ian Fletcher, head of human values in that Beebspeak spoof, W1A.

I didn’t watch Jamaica Inn. I’ve read the book, seen the movie, caught an earlier TV adaptation and once lived close to Jamaica Inn itself. I’d say that was enough. And if you are going to do wrecking in Cornwall you should have the courage to do its contemporary version. No more standing on the cliff with candles luring ships on to the rocks and then murdering the survivors. I am not being censorious: a lifestyle’s a lifestyle, and until Rick Stein opened his seafood restaurant in Padstow, and the Cornish began to export pasties, they had no other way of making an honest living. But things have changed. Not only does the county now enjoy Minority Status, it wrecks differently.

Today, and for all I know this is true of other remote areas of the country, it’s not ships that locals target but relationships – marriages, ideally, but courtships and engagements will do as well. First you lure the couple to your village with innocent-looking brochures promising clean air, high seas, beetling cliffs and cream teas, then you beguile them at the bar with tales of mystery and black magic, then you promise to take them out mackerel fishing but there’s room for only one of them on your little boat, and while you’re pointing out the bobbing heads of seals to the city wife (“Over yon, maid”), and wooing her with reminiscences of your last great pilchard haul, your own spouse is working over the city husband, calling him “Me ’andsome” and getting him to roll with her in the blackthorn. Within a week one of them will have gone back to Primrose Hill and the other will have found a little cottage to rent overlooking the harbour.

This isn’t, it should be said, without its risk of wreckage for the locals themselves. They, too, fall in love, mainly with their own romancing, but otherwise with either of the pair from the metropolis, sometimes even with them both. I’ve known Cornish men leave the house one morning, without a word, and not be seen again until they return, years later, with a baffled, faraway look in their eyes, like the forsaken merman, incapable of settling back into village life for evermore. Cornish women, too, to whom a reputation for emmet-stealing has stuck, who go on walking the cliffs at night, siren‑like, in full make-up and high heels, and who at last are spoken of as witches.

Otherwise wreckers’ yarns are old hat, whether they have “sound issues” or they don’t. You can overdo the past, not because it’s another country but because it’s the wrong country. The BBC should try making a series about the way we live now, but without a detective in it, without a mysterious lake, and without a paedophile who has paid his dues to society and deserves to be left alone.

As for making it audible, I am past caring what they do. Because most of what I watch I can’t hear, I have taken to making up my own stories to the pictures. Mainly they’re stories adapted from late Henry James novels which are the sort of stories I like – articulate adulteries in English cathedral towns and the lengths to which the betrayed parties go not to show they know. It isn’t always easy to match such narratives to shots of midwives wheeling babies in period prams, but if I close my eyes as well I sometimes enjoy success.

The other way is to own up to the problem and get medical advice, though after my friend’s experience with his scrotum I’m reluctant to go near a doctor. He’ll just tell me I have a sound issue. And I won’t hear him. Failing that he’ll send me to have a hearing aid fitted and then, as all people my age know, you’re on the slippery slope. First you have a gadget to help you with your sound issue, then a gadget to help you with your water issue, then a gadget to help you with your mobility issue, and the next thing you’re in a care home having issues with your carers.

All along the fault lies with the programme makers who either have no interest in words – the picture being everything – or think dialogue is authentic only when it’s imperceptible to the naked ear. I can accept that when it’s drug takers who are talking, which is why I consented to not understanding a syllable of The Wire, and I half go along with it in the case of troubled cops from Louisiana, which is why I was happy to understand only half of what was happening in True Detective. It’s a truism of detective thrillers anyway: given the banality of most plots, the only real excitement lies in separating one indistinguishable bit of muttering from another.

Otherwise it’s subtitles or nothing. Secretly, of course, the entire country is watching everything with subtitles. The success of Scandinavian television is to be attributed to its coming to us with subtitles already attached. May I propose that the BBC should now do that with all its programmes. That way we will eventually be able to do without sound altogether. Which will cut costs and help make up the shortfall when the licence fee goes.