Saturday, 25 February 2017

Newsnight's revoiced version of the BBC's inaudible drama, "SS-GB" - using Radio 4 newsreaders

If, like us, you watched last Sunday's first episode of what has the makings...

...of an enjoyable alternative history thriller series, you'll appreciate what an improvement Newsnight's version is on the original. What the Radio 4 newsreaders Zeb Soanes and Caroline Nicholls lack in emotional punch, they more than make up for in comprehensibility. We were about ten minutes into the programme before we switched the subtitles on: the plot is fairly dense, even when the dialogue has been received and understood - without it, we were almost immediately scratching out heads over what was going on. I'm pretty blind without my glasses: switching on subtitles was like putting my specs on - everything suddenly made sense.

There's been a lot of conjecture since the BBC broadcast Jamaica Inn almost three years ago as to why the corporation has such trouble with the sound levels on its dramas (last year's second series of Happy Valley attracted another slew of similar complaints, and the current series, Taboo, also has problems - but I don't want to watch that in any case). One thespian even claimed that, because many modern actors don't have much (if any) on-stage experience, they've never learned how to project their voices into the top row of the upper circle. But that would only make sense if the actors in SS-GB were bellowing their lines at us from the road outside our homes. They're not - their words are being picked up by sophisticated microphones situated a few feet away from their mouths: projection shouldn't really be a problem.  

The complaining actor (I can't remember which one it was) also blamed today's naturalistic acting style.  I'd agree with that, but I'm not sure "naturalistic" is quite the word for it. There seems to be an assumption amongst those involved in creating film and television drama that the easiest way to conjure up an atmosphere of tension and menace is to have your actors conduct all conversations in an urgent whisper.  I blame Kiefer Sutherland and his portrayal of Jack Bauer in numerous series of 24: a close friend of mine suffered throat damage after forcing his way into a stranger's house to douse a fire that was about to rage out of control (he's very matter-of-fact about it, but it all sounded dead heroic to me). Anyway, as a result of his actions, my chum now sounds a bit like Kiefer Sutherland battling international terrorists. Only, I can understand Kiefer Sutherland (and, I'm delighted to say, my pal). When many actors adopt this conspiratorial vocal style, though, they seem to lose clarity, and the people employed to point this out to them - e.g. the director and sound recordist - don't seem to realise that it's a problem; and neither do the post-production team (or maybe they do, but it's too late to recut the scenes, so they just do the best they can with what they've been handed). Perhaps every production crew needs an old person in tow to watch what's being recorded live on a typical flat-screen TV: they could shout "Eh?" whenever the actors go "full Sutherland"

The BBC is by no means the only broadcaster at fault here. Elementary, the American series in which Jonny Lee Miller plays a modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes, with Lucy Liu as his sidekick, has the worst sound I've ever heard - all the main actors speak clearly, but the audio is so woofly that subtitles are an absolute necessity. 

Whatever the cause(s) of the inaudibility curse, it seems that broadcasters aren't minded to address the issue: if they had been, they'd have done something about it long before now. And they haven't. One day, technologists will develop a tiny but really effective speaker that allows flat-screen TVs to produce decent audio (there isn't sufficient room for a decent speaker at the moment) - but, by then, actors will probably have resorted to simply mouthing their lines without actually producing any audible sound.

Anyway, our thanks to Sky for having made it much, much easier to switch on subtitles. Appreciated. 

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