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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

April 24, 2014 at 12:17 PM

Heard any good mumbles lately?

“Jamaica Inn,” the new BBC miniseries version of Daphne du Maurier’s 1930s gothic novel (starring Jessica Brown Findlay, formerly Lady Sybil of “Downton Abbey”), premiered on British television earlier this week, to strong ratings — and a lot of complaints. Apparently more than 2,000 people contacted the network to complain about sound issues; specifically, “mumbling” by the cast. (On Twitter, it’s already called #MumbleInn.) The BBC issued an apology and said it had adjusted the sound levels for later episodes, but the complaints continued (and the audience numbers dropped off as the series continued). A BBC spokesman, speaking to BBC News, offered this: “I think actors not being clear is one part of it, but my understanding about the complaints about Jamaica Inn was more complex than that… Of course we want (actors) to give brilliant performances and you’ve got to respect that, but if no one can understand what they’re saying, then there’s a problem.”  Well, yes indeed.

Deadline.com notes that similar complaints have previously been made about BBC productions “Birdsong” and “Parade’s End” (the latter of which I watched, during its U.S. airing, and don’t remember any sound issues). I do remember, though, struggling to understand David Tennant recently in “Broadchurch” — but was he mumbling, or was it just a specific regional accent unfamiliar to my ears? (“Jamaica Inn” is set in 1820s Cornwall, a dialect that may be challenging even to Brits.) All this brings to mind the kerfuffle over understanding Tom Hardy’s Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and raises the question: If an actor gives a great performance that no one can understand, does a tree fall in the forest? And does anybody hear?

Here’s the “Jamaica Inn” trailer, which looks (and sounds) pretty good to me. If the title sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 version, with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.

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