Elocution

Let’s talk about mumbling and muttering.

I mean – lsss tbb mmmmmnmmmmmmmnga.

Too many actors mumble their way through their lines, neither enunciating nor projecting words clearly enough for audiences to understand them, according to leading figures in theatre.

Edward Kemp, artistic director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) and actress Imogen Stubbs are infuriated by the mutterers, who they believe let down playwrights and audiences. Kemp said that some directors and producers encouraged mumbling, believing that “laidback mumbling is more truthful”.

Well sometimes it is, but you don’t want it to be so “truthful” that no one can understand it. Think Brando in the cab with Steiger. “You shoulda looked out for me a liddle bit.” “Truthful” but still clear.

Or, for a counter-example, think Ira Glass. He’s a great producer but he’s a wretched radio-speaker because he mumbles, and it drives me nuts. You’re on the radio, dammit, it’s your job, you’re a professional – why do you keep saying “Itsis Merican Life” when you should be saying “it’s This American Life”? He sounds like a teenager who hasn’t broken the mumbling habit yet, but he’s in his 40s.

Stubbs, who has appeared in scores of stage roles, including the part of Sally Bowles in Cabaret and Desdemona in Othello as well as film and television dramas, added that muttering – with its lack of variety and tonal interest – was perhaps a misguided attempt to imitate American film stars. “It was so drummed into us at drama school that ‘it’s unforgiveable not to be clear and heard’,” she said.

Hmm. Maybe, but the tv genre where I have the most trouble making out what the actors are saying is imported cop shows from the UK. Maybe that’s because they too are trying to imitate US movie stars, but still – they can be astonishingly inaudible. It’s not accents, I’m familiar with the accents, it’s mumbling, hypermumbling such that you can’t make out syllables, it’s just a blur of sound.

The problem is so serious that Kemp fears “plays of language” – including works by Shakespeare, Wilde, Coward and Pinter – could eventually become so opaque that audiences will stay away. Already, he said, “we are on a knife-edge with Restoration comedy … It’s hard to find people who can teach and direct it”.

Rada – whose alumni include Peter O’Toole, Vivien Leigh and Ralph Fiennes and which today attracts 3,000 applicants a year for 28 places – had to scrap its long-standing sight-reading test of a Dickens passage from its auditions because it was “so painful” to hear.

Ok, new hobby for me – reading Dickens aloud.