Friday, April 25, 2014

Spectacle versus words: it's not just Jamaica Inn

It's always fun to criticise things wittily on Twitter, and I can't deny that I enjoyed the tweeting about BBC1's dramatisation of Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, which received around 800 complaints for poor sound quality, viewers saying that the dialogue was inaudible and they simply couldn't tell what was supposed to be going on. I took part myself, but all along my heart was sinking for everyone involved in the production. Yesterday's Guardian article by Hannah Ellis-Peterson reveals that there is now tension at the BBC, with the various departments hugely upset and trying to fend off blame. Script-writer Emma Frost (who was first reported as being upset that her dialogue - greatly praised by the Du Maurier estate - had been mangled) was pleading for sympathy for sound operator Matt Gill who she said 'is crying' (I must say I was almost crying too when I thought of him); those who had seen previews reported having no problem with the sound and suggested that the glitch came in transmission, but those responsible for transmission claim it's an 'artistic issue', with actors, dialogue coach, and (by extension) director being held variously to blame.

Television drama production is a highly collaborative project, and it seems to me that it's a waste of time, and unfair, to try blaming one party, and my sense is that this fiasco is the culmination of a trend in film drama production that's been building for some time, and a salutary awakening. In recent years I've found myself missing dialogue in the cinema, and I've truly wondered if my hearing was going - especially as those around me seemed quite happy even while sweet packets were rattling all around - to the extent that I've had my hearing tested, only to have it found perfect. When I wondered about it to a companion he said to me: 'But no one else wants to hear all the words like you do.'

What???!!

This is the crux. Television and film drama, such wonderful media for picture-making, have become central to a cultural tendency to privilege image - and indeed spectacle - over words, and thus in effect, as this particular drama shows, over meaning and ideas. The script is no longer of prime importance. It's been a long while now since the Writers' Guild lost its battle for script writers to be named in TV listings (who cares about the writer? Who cares about the words? Who cares about anything but a 'high concept' to sell, and pretty well-known actors to look at, and some nice scenes to watch?). Jamaica Inn certainly looked beautiful, and interesting, and gothically stark etc. But it wasn't just the inaudibility of the words that suffered from the tendency to make this the prime priority. Why did Mary Yellan stomp the cold rainy moors in a tiny velvet bolero jacket more suited to ladies in town? Because it looked so fetching, of course. Why did these country people keep letting themselves get so wet in the rain (all country people without central heating or mod cons know it can lead to an early death), even standing snogging in the downpour when there was shelter nearby they could have run to? Because running water looks so beautiful on film, of course, as Blade Runner so iconically showed. Why did we keep getting time-release shots of the clouds when much time didn't really seem to have gone by? Well, you know the answer...  And all those camera shots of the exceedingly comely Mary Yellan actor Jessica Brown Findlay, and that striking picture of the inn from afar when she was inside it, confused the viewpoint - the novel, and the story, are about the mystery as seen from Mary Yellan's viewpoint - and I believe thus contributed to the sense of not knowing what was going on.

It's ironic therefore that someone from the BBC hauled up to comment on the news programme pleaded an over-insistence on authenticity, in the process blaming the actors. Actors like to get involved in the parts and be authentic, he claimed, appearing to refer to both the dialect and the inarticulacy of the characters. But this is to misunderstand the job of the actor and the processes involved, and seriously to short-change the professionalism of those involved here. Acting is supremely an art of communication. The job of an actor is to look authentic while in fact being highly inauthentic. The prime focus of an actor's interest is not how he or she feels while playing a part (though of course they have to feel) but how he or she comes across to the audience, and that's what the director is there to guide them about. One of the clearer voices in Jamaica Inn was Brown Findlay's but there was a moment when she had me completely stumped. 'My uncle is a ragger,' she seemed to me to say, and I simply couldn't concentrate for the next few minutes for wondering what on earth she meant (I hadn't read the book). Now it may be that in the Launceston dialect of the era 'wrecker' would sound like 'ragger' (perhaps it still does), in which case Brown Findlay had indeed done a wonderful job of authenticity just there, but authenticity is not exactly useful if it confuses a modern metropolitan audience. The collaborative job of the production team is to make things communicable while authentic-seeming enough not to spoil the suspension of disbelief. This was just one of those moments where that collaborative grip slipped. It's the kind of thing that happens all the time in rehearsals and shooting, and which requires time (and thus money) to sort out. And it's my hunch that the problem here is where the resources are being directed: towards the creation of spectacle rather than those quieter - but all-important - aspects of drama, the words and the meaning.

And yet. People were so up in arms. Maybe we're not so unattached to words and meaning, after all...

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