Sort out the sound, we're all unhappy

Monday 22 February 2016

My wife and I spent most of Tuesday evening shouting at the telly. No, we weren’t watching Judy’s favourite football team getting a hammering, or a rerun of a particularly irritating Question Time.

We were trying to hear the second episode of the BBC’s brilliant Happy Valley. Most of the time our shouting consisted of: “What? What did she just say?” Or the simpler: “Uh?”

For many devoted viewers Happy Valley, which stars the peerless Sarah Lancashire as police officer Catherine Cawood, is inaudible. Not every scene – but around half of them. I tweeted my quarter of a million followers to ask if they were having trouble too. They were and extremely frustrated about it.

A few years ago I invested in a sophisticated sound system to back up our flat-screen TV’s main speaker. All the fiddling and twiddling in the world on Tuesday night couldn’t make a difference. It is definitely the programme, not our telly.

The previous night we watched the new US drama about OJ Simpson and the sound was perfect throughout – interior scenes, exteriors, scenes with background music, all completely audible.

So why are so many of us having to whack the volume up to the max on BBC shows such as Happy Valley and Jamaica Inn (remember that? Even worse)? This week the BBC implied that it is the Yorkshire dialect in Happy Valley that is to blame. Cobblers. One tweet from a Huddersfield man said he couldn’t understand half of what they were saying either.

I’d suggest the blame rests on two factors. The first is obviously technical, the actual level of sound varies wildly from scene to scene. Sometimes it is tinny and trebly, then it inexplicably shifts to a woolly bass. None of us are imagining this – and it has got stuff all to do with regional accents.

The second problem involves scenes where the actors are required to mutter under their breath. In the theatre this is known as the “stage whisper”: giving an impression of speaking sotto voce while in fact delivering the line perfectly audibly to the audience. There was a lot of under-the-breath dialogue in Tuesday’s Happy Valley – a lot – and this didn’t help. Directors need to listen to playback after shooting a whispering scene and if there’s any doubt over the clarity of the dialogue go again.

Let’s hope BBC technicians are, as we speak, ruthlessly adjusting the sound levels for episode three. Otherwise for millions of viewers, it’ll be Unhappy Valley third time in a row.

Read more in Richard and Judy's column for the Daily Express here.
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  • Hi Richard I fully agree with your comments about the generally poor sound quality in many programmes, particularly the Happy Valley series - we now routinely switch on the subtitles for this show. The sound recording team should be ashamed for allowing this to go on - stand up and be counted ! A similar issue is the difference in sound levels between transmitted programmes and the intervening adverts both on BBC (yes, BBC programme adverts) and ITV. Excellent Sunday radio programme - clear and good content.