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Mumbling and Microphones

I type this as a debate rages about the new BBC drama Jamaica Inn. The programme received a record number of complaints about the audience's inability to understand what the actors were saying. Even Penelope Keith has joined in:

I don't want to take part in the specific debate (frankly I think it's a bit unchivalrous of the BBC to so publicly blast the sound department then the actors!), but I do think actors need to protect themselves on set. If an audience cannot understand what you are saying, then irrespective of what you have been told to do by a director: you have failed as a performer. A microphone cannot turn a mumble into a non-mumble, an editor can't edit a mumble into an Oscar-winning monologue.

Actors need to keep reminding themselves they are athletes! When you watch a ballerina perform they make every movement look effortless, the same should be true of an actor's speech. You might need to convey 'internalised' or 'whisper' - possibly even in another accent - but a truly good actor should be able to be understood. 

Performing well isn't about how you as the actor feels, it's about how you make the audience feel. Conveying words clearly is an essential part of that.


I'm working in Belgium at the moment coaching accent and dialect to a multi-national cast and working with a multi-national crew. As is so often the case on such films the crew communicate largely in English, despite the fact the probably only 20% of the crew claim English as their first language. As a dialect coach I find this endlessly fascinating and hearing the common pronunciations of English words across the board from all of my French/Belgian/German/Flemish colleagues. Most noteworthy is the constant absence of the schwa in prefixes and suffixes such as con-, a-, -ate and -ous. Whilst I sit listening and admiring these lovely people for their astonishing achievement of managing to work in another language, I am reminded of the failings of TEFL and EFL literature and schemes of work - WHERE IS THE SCHWA?! It seems the humble elocution teacher is at least useful for pointng out that sometimes the most important part of what you say is knowing what not to say....

ATE on it's own should rhyme with the number 8.

ATE as a suffix - 'delicate' - should become a weak form; DELI-cut.

That being said, there's something so brilliant about 'Globish' - that accent that unifies international speakers in English and in many respects makes a native English speaker seem terribly old-fashioned and pointlessly contrary - why on EARTH should 'ATE' change at all?? Where's the logic in that pronunciation??

Accent is really all about being part of a pack and about blending in through your speech patterns, and I rather like the idea of Globish as a big whole-world gang of speakers. Especially one that shames me into polishing my Franglais into some decent French!! 


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