Heard this before? BBC chief speaks out over Happy Valley mumbling

Director general’s promise to take action after complaints about Sarah Lancashire drama follows previous pledge over Jamaica Inn

Fans of BBC1’s Happy Valley could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve heard it all – or not – before.

BBC director general Tony Hall has promised to take action in response to complaints that viewers could not hear the dialogue on the Sarah Lancashire drama which was watched by more than 8 million people.

Hall told the BBC Trust that he “took all such complaints seriously” and would ask executives to “identify any lessons for future commissions”.

It is two years since another BBC1 drama, Jamaica Inn, prompted more than 2,000 complaints about muffled conversations, with its writer admitting there was a “major sound problem”.

And back in 2013, Hall highlighted inaudible dialogue as one of issues he would look to tackle in one of his first interviews as director general.

“Actors muttering can be testing – you find you have missed a line – you have to remember that you have an audience,” he said three years ago. “I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at.”

But the issue, which does not appear to affect other broadcasters, came back to haunt the BBC after viewers complained they could not hear what was going on in the second series of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley.

In a meeting of the BBC Trust on 23 February, Hall once again promised to tackle the issue.

“Trust members discussed viewer complaints regarding audibility and sound quality on the BBC1 drama Happy Valley,” said the minutes of the meeting, which were published on Thursday.

“The director general noted that he took all such complaints seriously and had already asked BBC Television to look into this matter and consider any immediate issues as well as identifying any lessons for future commissions.”

Responding to complaints about Happy Valley at the time of its broadcast, the BBC said: “We worked very hard to ensure everything was audible while keeping the sense of reality and the rawness of performances.

“Happy Valley is a drama that has been lauded for its realism and dramatic pathos – as such the dialogue is representative of the characters and area in which it is based.

“We trust it didn’t interfere with the audience enjoyment of the opening episode which was watched by [an overnight audience of] 6.5 million.”

Confirmation is expected on Friday that the BBC’s drama chief, Polly Hill, is leaving the corporation to join ITV.


John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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