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BBC investigates Jamaica Inn audibility problems

The broadcaster is looking into the gremlins that plagued Origin Pictures’ new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.

The BBC is looking into what led to over 1,000 complaints from viewers who said they could not understand much of what being said in the highly publicised new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (pictured, credit: BBC/Origin Pictures), produced for the broadcaster by Origin Pictures.

After the first episode went out on bank holiday Monday (21 April), the BBC received calls complaining that the dialogue was unintelligible. Initially blame was laid at the door of the audio department, with a spokeswoman citing “issues with the sound levels”.

This was disputed by many in the sound community – notably Ian Sands, a freelance production sound mixer with a long list of credits in drama (although not this production of Jamaica Inn), vice-chairman of the sound branch of the London Production Division of technicians’ union, BECTU, and an active member of AMPS (the Association of Motion Picture Sound).

In a letter to national newspapers he wrote: “I am seriously concerned that the main issue with the recent BBC production Jamaica Inn is being constantly referred to as a technical sound issue or problem. In the experience of colleagues who are in a position to know, the main problems are generally artistic and most likely fall within the responsibilities of the director.”

Speaking to the PSNEurope Audio for Broadcast newsletter, Sands expanded on his points by saying that even though the director and script supervisor are listening to the output on headphones, they are following the lines and effectively have subtitles. “Even if actors are miked up well and still mumble, all that the recordist gets is a good quality recording of a bad performance,” he said.

The BBC stated the sound levels would be adjusted for the remaining two episodes, but when this did not alleviate the problem – with Sean Harris, the actor playing smugglers leader Joss Merlyn, being singled out for criticism and ridicule because of his mumbling delivery – it had to concede that a “variety of factors” could be involved.

Jamaica Inn was recorded by Martin Beresford, a highly experienced production mixer who is understood to be bound by a non-disclosure agreement. It was mixed by Robert Farr, who also has an impressive track record, at LipSync Post, which was approached for comment but declined to make a statement. Orion Pictures was also asked for a response but directed all enquiries to the BBC.

A spokeswoman for BBC Drama said “several different things” were being looked into and that everyone involved would be talked to. Tellingly, she commented that nothing had been raised about the sound after people saw the preview DVDs and screenings.