Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Is 60 too young to start watching TV drama with the subtitles on? Not if you’re watching “Luther”

It finally happened last night around 9.20. We were watching Luther on BBC One. It was a scene featuring Detective Chief Inspector John Loofah himself and DSU George Stark, the Internal Affairs cop determined to bring him down (for reasons best known to himself). The problem was that I couldn’t make out a single word either of them was saying. I increased the volume, but that didn’t help.

The problem was that the actors had evidently challenged each other to a whispering contest. The only thing missing was Kiefer Sutherland, the American actor who delivers his lines so softly they must have to plug a microphone directly into his vocal chords to pick up anything at all.

I suppose actors resort to this Trappist approach because they imagine it heightens dramatic tension by unsettling the audience, forcing us sit forward and concentrate fiercely as we strain to interpret the indistinct susurrations emanating from our TV sets. This approach certainly makes the viewer feel tense – but it mainly just makes us feel incredibly bloody annoyed.

The audibility issue was compounded last night by the fact that Idris Elba, the Sarf Lahnan actor who plays maverick(ish) cop Loofah isn’t a graduate of the Sir John Gielgud School of Precise Enunciation, and that David O’Hara, who was playing his obsessed enemy from the Judas Squad, is a Scottish actor whose mouth and lower jaw appear to have been permanently novocained and who consequently delivers his lines in the manner of a catatonic ventriloquist wondering whether that second bottle of Old McSporran whisky before lunch was such a good idea after all. Perhaps the original script called for O’Hara to have a small red-haired, kilt-sporting dummy on his knees throughout: if so, the director apparently decided it might prove somewhat distracting. I’m pretty good at simultaneously translating working-class Scottish into English, but even I was totally stumped. As far as my English wife was concerned, O’Hara might as well have been slurring in Swahili.

I have no idea where the Quietist School of TV Acting got the idea that this mode of non-communication is believable or effective. After all, one never encounters anyone behaving like this in real life - unless, of course, they’re suffering from laryngitis, or defusing a bomb. If there's no obvious reason for someone's unwillingness to project their voice, surely you'd just say, "I'm sorry, but you're speaking far too softly for me to understand what what you're saying."

I’ll admit my hearing isn’t that great, but it’s normally only a problem at parties where everyone’s standing up and there’s a lot of background chatter. I invariably end up craning forward, back hunched, my face scrunched up with the effort of trying to decipher the meaningless, undifferentiated noise being produced by the person below. But that’s not really a problem, because I’ve never seen the point of busy stand-up parties and generally try to avoid them. If I’m sitting down, I can hear everything. I’m also the first person in the house to hear the doorbell or the phone ring (possibly because this gives me a head-start in taking avoiding action). I may have lost a bit in the upper and lower registers, but I am not going deaf.

After I’d asked my wife for about the 20th time whether she had any idea what the actors’ latest breathy exhalation actually signified (at which point Mrs G looked as if she might be thinking about contacting Fiona Shackleton), she suggested we turn on Sky’s subtitling option. So we did. It took about two minutes to adjust to the little black box on the screen, and the oddness of reading “She screams” while a woman is screaming. But after that we completely forgot that we were reading subtitles and got on with enjoying the hilarious absurdity of the plot (which creakily delivered the time-worn message that, no matter how suckingly ineffective the criminal justice system is at protecting the innocent, vigilantism is always very, very naughty and will end in tears – got that, kiddies?).

The main reason TV sound – particularly dialogue – has got so much worse in recent years appears to be that there’s no room in flat-screen sets for proper speakers. The industry as a whole has become obsessed with slimness and picture quality – now extraordinarily impressive – which has left sound as a neglected partner. When we were launching the BBC’s digital replacement for its analogue Ceefax text service, I almost lost the will to live endlessly explaining to bosses that red button services took a long time to launch because early digital set-top boxes had all the computing power of an abacus, and we had absolutely no control over them. All we could do was produce a service that was lightning fast leaving us. Similarly, broadcasters can’t directly improve the crappy sound systems on new TV sets. But surely they have a duty to ensure that the way they produce programmes doesn’t actually compound the problem.

Subtitles can only be used on live programmes, which means it’s not an option for 80% of our drama viewing. And I’m damned if I’m going to pay up to £600 for a separate soundbar gizmo to boost audibility. The simple answer, surely, would be for broadcast executives to get medieval with programme-makers. After all, the vast majority of those who pay the BBC license fee and satellite or cable subscriptions aren’t fitted with bionic ears.

No comments:

Post a Comment