The great Al Pacino can mumble with the best of them, as he proved in Warren Beatty’s wacky 1990 caper movie Dick Tracy. Arguably — and not for the first time in his storied career — Pacino stole the movie as cartoon villain Big Boy Caprice, a larger-than-life gangster with a weakness for making long, torturous speeches in an almost incoherent ramble.
In one of his more memorable moments in the film, Big Boy — enunciating clearly for once — gathers his gangster colleagues around him and says, bright-eyed and alert: “Wait a minute! Wait! I’m having a thought. Oh yes. Oh yes. I’m going to have a thought. It’s coming. It’s coming. . . It’s gone.”
I thought of Pacino in Dick Tracy the other day when a simmering controversy in UK TV boiled over after the BBC was flooded with viewer complaints that hardly anyone can understand what the actors are saying in the BBC’s new alternative-history drama SS-GB. (Co-stars Sam Riley and Kate Bosworth, left) It looks very interesting and all, went the complaint, but it would be so much more interesting if we could understand what the hell the characters are saying.
SS-GB, based on the 1978 novel by Len Deighton and set in a Great Britain occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War — what the kids call an alternative universe time continuum — joins a growing list of TV programs viewers have complained about, a list that includes the BAFTA and TV Choice Award-winning crime drama Happy Valley and FX’s period drama Taboo, about quarreling 19th-century land barons and featuring a star turn by writer-creator Tom Hardy.
“Thought it would have been good,” one viewer tweeted of SS-GB, shortly after the first episode aired. “It might have been, but I couldn’t hear a bloody word. Whispering and mumbling.”
“Does anyone at BBC even listen to programs before broadcast?” another viewer groused. “Can’t hear SS-GB. Whispered mumbling — sort it out, auntie.”
(‘Auntie’ is some British viewers’ nickname for BBC in the same way some viewers here refer to Fox News as Fox.)
“[Series lead] Sam Riley (top) sounds like he smokes five packs a day,” yet another viewer weighed in. “No idea what he’s mumbling about.”
The early reviews of SS-GB have not been as complimentary as, say, those for The Americans, or even Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (right). “Britain is under Nazi rule,” one reviewer wrote, “and I can’t help laughing at the oppression.”
“The jackboot is on the other foot,” the review continued, “but why are the women all sex workers or mysterious sirens?”
It’s the mumbling, though, that has raised people’s ire.
SS-GB features a number of German actors speaking in their native language, with subtitles. Many viewers on Twitter said it was the English-speaking actors who needed subtitles, though.
Some UK media commentators have noted that actors shout more in US TV dramas — or speak more clearly, at any rate, in broadcast dramas like MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0.
Nuanced dialogue is more of a signature of cable drama, though even on HBO and Showtime, the dialogue is perfectly easy to understand in Game of Thrones and Homeland, even though they feature many of the same English and Welsh actors one might see in Happy Valley or SS-GB (below left).
Some UK dramas are subtitled for airing in the US, to mixed effect: US viewers familiar with UK TV find the subtitles condescending and annoying, and many viewers raised on a diet of US TV don’t like subtitles at all.
The issue at the moment is not regional dialect and accents, though, but rather a growing suspicion that some actors are phoning in their lines, sound technicians are falling asleep on the job engineers and an over-reliance in many of today’s prestige dramas, as one UK critic described it, “on scenes of men talking and scowling in dimly lit rooms.”
One viewer grumbled on Twitter, too, about heavy-handed, overbearing music — another personal peeve — that’s so obtrusive it drowns out much of what’s being said. It’s worse, too, that the lazy, rote music used in documentary series like PBS’s Nova is not even composed by a real person but instead is stitched together by computer programs from a store of pre-recorded techno beats and musical cues.
Another culprit: Today’s flatscreen TV’s, which have sacrificed speaker size and sound quality in a rush to make everything thinner and more compact.
Other suggestions include an overall loss of hearing in society at large. Everything is louder now, faster, more frenzied. The result, some hearing specialists say, is an inevitable decline in people’s ability — or willingness — to listen.
How many times have you had to repeat yourself to be heard, this argument goes. How many people shout into their smartphones? How loud are TV ads, and are they getting louder?
Cable dramas aim for realism. And the reality is that not everyone speaks clearly, especially if — as in the case of SS-GB or even Homeland — they don’t want to be overheard.
That said, it’s always better — for the story, and for the viewer watching at home — if what’s being said can be understood.