Mumbling TV actors: The heart of the mutter
- 16 July 2013
The BBC's new director general Tony Hall has complained that actors aren't speaking clearly enough in TV drama. Is it time to cut the mumble, asks Ben Milne.
"I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man," Lord Hall tells the Radio Times, "but I think muttering is something we could look at."
His comments are likely to strike a clear chord with viewers. Recent dramas like Birdsong and Parade's End apparently drew complaints because of indistinct dialogue. It's a perennial gripe that the senior generation has always had about young people - that they don't speak clearly enough.
Andrew Billen, TV critic for the Times, gets more mail about not being able to hear dialogue than on any other subject. "TV is made by young people, but it's watched by old people," he notes.
Billen says that as people get older they find it more difficult to distinguish dialogue from background noise. TV makers don't take this into consideration, he suggests. And production techniques have made things worse.
"It's quite fun to lay on a great piece of music behind a drama but on most people's tinny screens the sounds can become indistinct."
Trends in acting haven't necessarily helped. Method acting tries to capture the "truth" of a character - even if that character can't be heard properly - rather than bowing to stodgy old considerations about being audible from the cheap seats.
Its foremost proponent was Marlon Brando - a man given the nickname "Mumbles" by his Guys and Dolls co-star Frank Sinatra. This was an actor who put cotton wool in his mouth, while playing Don Corleone in The Godfather, to make himself less intelligible.
Other actors who have been accused of mumbling include Kristen Stewart in the Twilight films, not to mention Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and Jeff Bridges in True Grit - both of whom perfect an indistinct cowboy diction known to anyone who's seen Blazing Saddles as Authentic Frontier Gibberish.
But is it fair to blame the actors? Actor Ian Kelly starred in Pitman Painters at the National Theatre, and has also appeared in TV dramas including Downton Abbey. He says that most performers are just doing what's been asked of them by the producers and directors.
"Everything that is going on is to do with the sound department of the production, and their choices in an edit suite."
But perhaps the last word should belong to Sheb Wooley, who worked with a young Clint Eastwood. "He didn't speak his words very loud. The sound man was always saying, 'Kid, speak up!' But he mumbled his way to a fortune."