UK Politics

Peer urges ministers to act over TV drama 'mumbling'

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Media captionHouse of Cards and Downton Abbey writers get involved in debate over TV "mumbling"

A Conservative peer has called for pressure on broadcasters to ensure viewers can clearly hear dialogue.

Lord Naseby's question followed complaints from viewers about "mumbled" speech in TV shows, including the recent BBC drama SS-GB.

Minister Lord Ashton of Hyde told him "it would not be right" for the government to intervene.

The debate at Lords questions drew in Downton Abbey writer Lord Fellowes and House of Cards creator Lord Dobbs.

"TV viewers should be able to hear and understand their favourite shows," said Culture, Media and Sport Minister Lord Ashton.

"It's a long-standing principle, however, that government does not interfere in broadcasters' operational activities so it would not be right for government to consult on this matter."

'Unfortunate fashion'

Lord Naseby said he was disappointed with the minister's answer, telling the House of Lords: "All these problems started in 2014 with that drama called Jamaica Inn, when there were well over 1,000 written complaints to the BBC about the inaudibility of that particular show.

"Is it appropriate for the ordinary viewer to go to subtitles to understand what the dialogue is?

"If he can't apply pressure on the chairman of the BBC, will he recognise that someone will have to make a complaint to Ofcom?"

Image caption Downton Abbey writer Lord Fellowes said the "unfortunate fashion" was not new

Lord Ashton replied that, since 2014, the BBC had produced "66,000 hours of new material and I think there have been six programmes which have had audibility problems".

Lord Fellowes, another Conservative peer and the writer of dramas including ITV's Downton Abbey, said the "unfortunate fashion" for mumbled dialogue was not new.

"We had a lot of trouble with it in the 1950s and 60s," he said, adding: "The government has no proper role other than to hope it will soon pass."

'An impossibility'

After the minister suggested that "one person's mumbling is another person's atmosphere", Labour peer Lord Blunkett, who is blind, said: "Atmosphere's fine if you can lip read."

For people like him, he told peers, mumbling was "not just an irritant but an impossibility" and he called on the government to "lean on" media regulator Ofcom.

House of Cards author Lord Dobbs weighed in to say the problem could lie with modern flat-screen televisions.

They are "all screen and the speakers face backwards", he said, though he conceded: "We are all getting a little older and, perhaps, deafer."

Earlier this year the BBC promised to "look at" sound levels for its new drama SS-GB after viewers complained about mumbling.

An adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Jamaica Inn attracted almost 2,200 complaints by the end of its run in 2014.

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