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After Jamaica Inn and ‘Mumblegate’, IPS calls for better audibility in TV sound

The furore earlier this year over sound intelligibility and mumbling actors following the BBC's Jamaica Inn could lead to a change in attitude to how audio is handled on set and in post-production

Audio is a common cause of viewer complaints about television. In 2011 the BBC admitted that “bad sound” was the second most complained about topic on its website. This spring the BBC Academy, the broadcaster’s training and development department, put of figure of 22 percent on the level of protests on the subject. It is also the biggest cause of concern about TV broadcasting among members of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV), which campaigns on issues affecting public service broadcasting and for quality and diversity programming.

But Jamaica Inn, the BBC’s big drama production over last Easter, created what sound recordist and chairman of the Institute of Professional Sound (IPS), Simon Bishop, describes as a “perfect storm”, involving a number of different elements. The first episode of the three-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel had viewers contacting the BBC to say they did not understand much of what was being said in the programme.

Initially the BBC blamed this on “issues with the sound levels” and said these would be addressed for the remaining two episodes. When this did not solve the problem, with more than 1,000 complaints received over the three-night run, the broadcaster was forced to concede that a “variety of factors” was possibly responsible. Attention, both on social media and topical comedy shows such as Have I Got News for You, turned to the performance of Sean Harris as wreckers leader Joss Merlyn, whose Cornish accent and mumbling delivery were deemed often incomprehensible.

Ben Stephenson, controller of BBC Drama Commissioning, later commented, “We have thoroughly looked into what caused the sound problems but there isn’t one explanation to single out alone. However, it has highlighted a range of problems that can occur with sound in drama and we would like to reassure audiences that we will learn from this to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” There are strong industry rumours that the BBC is compiling a further report on the Jamaica Inn affair but a spokeswoman for the broadcaster said the matter had been looked into by Stephenson and his team and there would be no further statement from him, although the intention was to improve the situation.

There is some incredulity that this situation happened at all, given that the BBC Academy published guidance on best practice for recording and mixing sound in 2011. This was largely prompted by the results of a TV Audibility Survey requested by the VLV in 2007 but also followed another high-profile row over sound. Also in 2011 early episodes of science series Wonders of the Universe received 118 complaints about music drowning out the narration of Professor Brian Cox, who defended the production by saying it was designed as a “cinematic experience… not a lecture”. Despite this explanation later programmes were remixed and the BBC, working with the VLV and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), drew up guidelines for production staff on how to get the best audio for different types of programme.

Colin Browne, chairman of the VLV, says he is “disappointed” that the guidance was not followed in some cases. “The BBC was presented with this initiative in 2001 so I am concerned that the issue seems to be carrying on. It can’t be in anybody’s interest for a programme not to be understood,” he comments.

The IPS, which assisted in assessing the results of the TV Audibility Survey, has issued a statement on the subject in the wake of Jamaica Inn, or ‘Jamumble Inn’ as some in the sound industry are now calling it. This points out that in 1993, when the corporation was being restructured on more free-market lines by then director-general John Birt, the authority to reject a programme before transmission was transferred from operational and technical staff to the producer of the show concerned. Also at this time many full-time operations personnel left the BBC and were employed on a freelance basis.

Because of this, says the IPS, audio freelancers “may suggest alterations to a sound mix, can encourage directors to move to a quieter location, request a louder/clearer performance from artists, ask that the level of incident music or sound effects be lowered but… have no authority to insist it is done”. It adds that because of this some audio professionals have been cautious about “pushing their client too far”.

Simon Bishop (pictured above right) observes that no one notices TV sound “until there is something wrong”. He adds that the IPS has heard of sound recordists using recent events to assert themselves when there is a problem with audio, and a re-take or other action is necessary, by warning directors, “You don’t want this to turn out like Jamaica Inn, do you?” As maligned as that production now is, Bishop concludes that it could serve a higher purpose: “I think Jamaica Inn will prove to be a good thing in TV because it will make people think more about sound than they did before.”