In the Grumpy Old House this article by Sam Leith went down rather well ...
'Whassup mumble mumble. Dasheeeyid mutter mutter. On da corner mumble mumble Omar mumble. McNulty, mumble mutter. Shee-yid.'
So runs, to my straining ears, the average line of dialogue between the characters in the BBC's latest gritty drama series The Wire. David Simon's drama of Baltimore's criminal underworld is one of the most critically admired pieces of television in the history of the medium. Yet, as anyone who has watched it will know, it is all but impossible to make out a word of what anybody in it is saying.
Most people I know - and these are people in their mid-30s - prefer to watch The Wire with the subtitles switched on.
But it's not just the mumbled patois of the Baltimore dealers, and it's not just The Wire. A whole range of programmes on modern television - from documentaries and game shows to comedies and drama - suffer from what I think of as 'sonic squelch'. People have problems with programmes that deploy music heavily to help give a sense of time to the action - the BBC's Ashes To Ashes is a case in point. Dialogue is often drowned out by scene-setting songs from the Eighties, such as ones by The Stranglers and Ultravox.
Now, after an approach from the campaign group Voice Of The Listener And Viewer, BBC1's controller Jay Hunt has promised to look into the problem. She admitted: 'There are particular issues with background music that make certain programmes difficult for older viewers. It's massively important to that audience and is something that we are taking seriously.'
The BBC's decision to pay attention to this issue (described by the experts as 'ambient audio') deserves our hearty - our deafening, if you like - applause. Let us hope that not only do they now listen to their viewers, but that they act on their recommendations.
There are good arguments to say that we are living through a golden age in television screenwriting: from America, complex and intelligent dramas and sitcoms such as Generation Kill, The West Wing, Seinfeld and even Friends; and from the UK, shows such as Spooks, Skins and Life On Mars snap and crackle with invention. Some of the best dialogue in the history of TV is also being produced: but the tragedy is that we can hear only one word of it in three.
The problem started, if you ask me, in the cinema. Today's blockbuster movies make so much of surround-sound that the dialogue is the least of the producers' interests.
John Cleese said recently that he had stopped going to the cinema because there was too much prominence given to sound effects. He said: 'No older person goes [to the movies] any more. It's harder for me to hear the dialogue than it was 20 or 30 years ago. . . The problem is that when they [the sound editors] mix movies now, they forget that the audiences have not heard the dialogue. They've heard the dialogue hundreds of times before and take it for granted.'
I couldn't agree more. For example, if you watched Dark Knight in the cinema last year you'll remember Heath Ledger struggling in vain to deliver his lines through a non-stop chain of ear-battering explosions and over-amplified musical score.
But how many times while watching telly, too, have you heard the punchline of a sitcom drowned in a cascade of canned laughter or - as irritating as a rustled crisp-packet - a torrent of over-amplified studio applause? How often have you misheard the crucial line of dialogue in a drama because the so- called 'background music' has galloped excitedly into the foreground? How often have you found yourself straining to understand lines mumbled out of the corner of a teenager's mouth into the turned-up collar of his coat while an express train thunders over the railway bridge under which he moodily shelters?
Such scenes are often defended in the name of 'realism' - but realism in art isn't about reproducing reality, it's about creating the impression of it. In actual reality, after all, you'd be able to grab the little scruff by his earlobe, lean down and shout: 'WILL YOU BLOODY SPEAK UP?'
I can already hear the objections, though, from the directors and sound-mixers who fear their artistic visions will be compromised by audibility. 'Turn it up, Grandad,' they will say. 'It's not our fault you're as deaf as a post.' Well, actually, it is their fault for not understanding that the hearing of us all deteriorates as we get older, and the fact is that, whether we like it or not, Britain has an ageing population.
As I say, it's sad to acknowledge the deterioration of our hearing: but at least most of us do acknowledge it. Is it so unreasonable to ask the makers of the television programmes we watch to acknowledge it, too? The makers of film and TV have a duty to make their dialogue audible to the elderly: and for the purposes of this discussion, 'the elderly' doesn't just include me - at the pensionable age of 35 - but everyone past his or her early 20s.
Regarding the case of the BBC, it is a duty owed to their customers and employers. The BBC are, let us not forget, public servants - and the vast bulk of their funds are provided by people older and deafer than even me. In the case of commercial broadcasters, it is a duty they owe to themselves. As Richard Ingrams - founder of The Oldie magazine - has long pointed out, advertisers obsessively target teenagers and twentysomethings, when the demographic with all the money is the over-40s.
There is a huge market there - and it's not going to watch your advertisements if they're embedded in a programme that it has long since turned off because it can't hear what anyone is saying.
Is it enough to leave this in the benign hands of Auntie and to the good sense of advertising executives? I wish it were so. But considering those two near-oxymoronic propositions - the benign hands of Auntie and the good sense of advertising executives - it may be a stretch. This problem needs invigilating. I propose a campaign to Stop The Sonic Squelch. If enough of us sign up, write in and make our voices heard, it won't be possible to ignore us.
Limits have already, rightly, been placed on how loud adverts are allowed to be compared to the surrounding programmes. Why should not the same be done for background noise compared to dialogue?
Our campaign slogan will be: 'Whassup mumble mumble. Dasheeeyid mutter mutter. On da corner mumble mumble Omar mumble. McNulty, mumble mutter. Shee-yid.'
And when we march in our millions on Television Centre, wearing it on our T-shirts, we will usher in a new age of audible television. Are you listening, out there?
The GOS says: I have to stick my oar in here, though. This is NOT entirely a problem of deafness. I experience this problem when watching television too, but in a hearing test three years ago I was found to have particularly acute hearing. Might be something to do with having been a musician in a previous life. In fact it's so acute that I avoid going to the cinema because the damn places can be so loud it causes me discomfort.
Obviously many older people do go a bit Mutt and Jeff, but what nobody tells you is that however good the hearing, the ability to discriminate deteriorates with age. Older people like myself are just less able to filter out the sounds they don't want to hear, and concentrate on those that they do want.
Young people can watch television and carry on a conversation simultaneously. I can't, and what's more I'm damned if I can see why I should try. So if I'm watching television, you can all bloody well shut up!
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