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.


  1. Forbidden Snowflake says

    I don’t remember whose quote this is, and I can’t seem to look it up:
    “Balaam’s donkey spoke with a human voice. Certain actors ought to follow suit”.

  2. Charles Sullivan says

    As far as Ira Glass is concerned I think it has to do with the dialect of his Baltimore upbringing. There’s a swath of territory between Baltimore and Pittsburgh where the feature of sliding words together in certain sentences and omitting certain sounds is not uncommon.

  3. brianpansky says

    my first thought was bane from the dark knight rises who was occasionally literally incomprehensible.

  4. says

    Maureen – exactly so. And who was Branagh’s hero and model? Derek Jacobi. Who was Jacobi’s? Richard Burton. They all knew how to speak the speech.

    Charles on the dialect – yes but if your career involves talking on the radio you need to (and can) learn to modify the dialect.

  5. says

    I think the reason that British cop dramas are so hard to understand is that for some reason (probably to save money), the Brits tend to record all their dialog live, rather than doing dialog replacement in the studio, the way American shows do it. The room acoustics are poor, the microphone has to be far enough away to be out of sight, the actors aren’t facing the microphone, and the result is often hard to make out. At least the Brits seem to have given up on trying to record dialog while walking on crunchy gravel paths! [I love the old Inspector Morse shows, but sheesh!]

  6. says

    Peter – ah, that’s interesting.

    Only, then you would think they would try harder to compensate. Don’t they watch their own shows?! You’d think they would notice “blurblurblurblur” where a bit of information-laden dialogue is supposed to be.

    I’m looking at you, Vera. I love Brenda Blethyn, love the oop North atmospherics and landscape, but god damn there’s a lot of “blurblur”.

  7. Trebuchet says

    And then there’s Sean Connery, who needsh to get hish teeth fixshed, or shomething.

  8. says

    Funny. My collegiate major was “radio-TV-film” (now morphed into “mass communications”). I remember the freshman-level intro to radio course — everyone one of us was chastised because we didn’t pronounce “Double-U” correctly. We all had to practice it, because the call letters of our student-run campus radio station started with “Double-U”. (As are all radio and TV stations east of the Mississippi.)

    There was no way we were getting on the air without being able to pronounce the station call letters.

    Ahh. Memories.

  9. says

    Richard Burton, oh my. He could probably read the phone directory and make it sound good. And when he had a fantastic script:

    Night flying like black flour in Dai Bread’s bakery. In Ocky Milkman’s loft, quiet as a mouse with gloves.

    it was unforgettable.

  10. evilDoug says

    I’ve recently been watching Foyle’s War and certainly don’t notice any mumbling in that. I actually can’t think of a UK cop series with mumblers (and most, with the notable exception of Trial and Retribution, have about 3 orders of magnitude fewer asshole cops than the US shows, which I simply will not watch anymore). But I’m with Peter on the notion of poor sound recording. One that comes to mind is the Dalglish series with Roy Marsden – the sound quality ranges from horrible to abysmal. I can’t recall which, but there is some relatively recent series that has low-frequency rumble throughout in the indoor scenes. Very unpleasant.

  11. johnthedrunkard says

    I believe that British TV has much superior sound quality. There may be some loss of clarity in re-broadcasting in the US.

    Over much protest, RADA cut back on is Alexander teaching budget a while back. We can look forward to that impact to the breathing and voice quality of British actors soon.

  12. evilDoug says

    I believe that British TV has much superior sound quality.

    Not in evidence. Both British TV and US TV can produce good sound quality (in analog video, PAL is definitely superior to NTSC; digital is vastly better than both, but it does nothing to improve on the revolting program content of so much of TV).
    What Peter and I are referring to is not a function of potential technical quality, but a function of the competence of recording and editing crews (and no doubt directors). The sound for Dalglish is horrible because of a combination of music that is too loud and microphones pointed vaguely in the direction of the actor – at the backs of heads, at feet, from too far away – just plain badly done. I suspect that American sound recordists are better at holding both hands and a microphone boom over their heads for long periods (I’d last about half an hour, and then take up rationalizing how sound really didn’t contribute much and a return to silent film would be wise).
    Branagh tends to be a bit mumbly in Wallander.

  13. davidmc says

    I thought it was just my ears getting old. What I have started doing with mumblerers, with some success, is flicking through the TV’s audio pre-sets, (standard, music, sports , and movie, settings on my tv) to find the best one for individual programs.

  14. Mike Flex says

    …suspect that American sound recordists are better at holding both hands and a microphone boom over their heads for long periods

    Not in evidence. Mind you, anyone who can manage to loft a boom, mic, and cables for just ten minutes without pain has probably developed the strange muscles and posture that a professional boom-swinger requires.
    Your perception could just be that USA audience sees a lot of old UK shows done in the days before well-hidden radio mics became ubiquitous.
    “Gosford Park” – lots of radio mics running – very subtle. You have to watch the wide shots of rooms full of people to realise how well they did it.

  15. Don Quijote says

    It’s hard to tell if the actors are mumbling or not in American cop series shown here in Spain. What is supposed to be background music is so loud and intrusive.

    (That’s if you listen in V.O. and not the dubbed versión.)

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