Category Archives: Television

What did he say? Why the ‘mumbling’ issue on TV was inevitable..

Ear Trumpet
Earlier this year the BBC had to deal with complants that the dialogue in the drama series Jamaica Inn was difficult to hear because the actors were mumbling. This week the writer Andrew Davies said that his wife had needed subtitles to understand his latest drama ‘Quirke’!

So does this constitute another crisis for the BBC to deal with? Can we officially name this ‘Mumblegate’? Well I don’t think this is a BBC issue specifically. Whilst these two dramas seem to have been more noticeably indistinct than most, it is a more general problem that has been around for a while. There are three factors at play here, it’s not just the fault of the actors:

The speakers in flat screen speakers are massively inferior to cathode ray tube sets. This is the price we pay for them being flat – they have no depth in which to put a decent speaker ‘cone’. The speakers often don’t even face forwards but are on the back and bounce the sound back off the wall into the room.  No wonder the sound is weak and muffled as a result. As with the move from vinyl to CD and from CD to MP3, we have sacrificed audio quality in the name of convenience. The expectation is that anyone who cares about sound will invest in separate speakers, which is what I have reluctantly had to do.

Modern directors over-use and over-amplify dramatic music. Dramas are scored like Hollywood movies but are actually watched in living rooms, not acoustically optimised cinemas. It is a bugbear of mine that nowadays the actors can’t be left to convey the drama, the music also has to emotionally manipulate us to feel happy or full of foreboding. It’s then mixed it into the soundtrack in state-of-the-art expensive studios and sounds great, but it’s then broadcast via poor quality speakers and the actors voices battle against deafening music designed for Dolby 5.1 surround sound but actually heard in tinny near-mono. Whereas we are hearing the dialogue for the first time, those mixing it already know what is being said. As Davies comments: “I could hear it because I knew what the words were and I think that’s often the problem with the people in the production … When you know what the lines are, there’s a tendency to think you’ve heard them alright whereas if you didn’t know the thing, maybe you wouldn’t.”

Accents and diction. Clearly enunciating dialogue in a BBC English accent is very ‘old school’, regional accents and mumbling are in. Most of us mumble in real life, so arguably actors are just doing their job and reflecting our own poor diction.

Add these three together and we get the Doctor and Clara pirouetting manically around each other in the TARDIS, firing off unclear dialog at each other at a thousand miles an hour, whilst the National Orchestra of Wales attempts to tell us how we would be feeling at this point if only we could hear the dialogue in the first place, all delivered to most people via speakers with a dynamic range only slightly better than a walkie-talkie. Don’t worry though, because we can buy the DVD or watch the repeats on BBC 3 to catch up on the witticisms that we missed the first time.

The Beatles early hits were mixed deliberately to sound good not in the studio but on mono transistor radios. Nowadays some dance producers are similarly forgoing bass in order to have the percussion sound optimal on tinny smartphone speakers. However in our tech-obsessed industry it is unlikely a TV producer would be brave enough to do something similar and mix dialogue and soundtrack to sound OK on the poor flat screen speakers most of us use. The tiny minority of the country (including all TV execs) that had invested in decent speakers for their flat screen TVs would be up in arms.

Missing the Target: my own ‘lost episodes’ saga

 

It’s the era of the eBook, but the unexpected return of some childhood Doctor Who novels shows how books themselves can act as personal time machines.

DaleksThis is the story of the 40-year journey of my childhood Target book collection.

For the uninitiated, Target were a book publishing company who built a very successful business in the 70s and 80s, publishing ‘novelisations’ of old Doctor Who stories. This was a pre- VHS, DVD or Netflix world in which TV episodes were largely gone forever after broadcast. Doctor Who itself was only on for 25 minutes a week, with no stripped repeats on BBC3, Horror Channel or box sets to bridge the gap, so these novels were manna from heaven. From 1974, when I was given the first trio of books, ten year old me was hooked.

The Target Doctor Who range was immensely popular. Over 150 titles were published and many of my generation, including members of the modern ‘Who’ production team credit the books with helping them to become readers in the first place (a young Steven Moffat is shown below). Our desire to experience these past adventures overwrote that childish aversion to reading for pleasure, whilst the simple but effective style of Terrance Dicks, their primary writer, struck the perfect note.  Indeed, when I recently mentioned Target books to my cousin, with whom I have never had a Who-related conversation before, he waxed lyrical about borrowing them from the library, spontaneously recalling a passage he had enjoyed about a scientist called ‘Rubeish’ who the Doctor misheard as Rubbish. High comedy indeed.

WebHowever, what most Target readers at the time did not realise was than many of the stories we were reading no longer existed at the BBC. The BBC junked many episodes in order to reuse expensive video and free up storage space. This decision is derided by fans as being completely shortsighted, but I do have some sympathy myself. I have to confess I was to commit a similar act of personal cultural vandalism.

After collecting the first Target books I headed off to college and they gathered dust on my shelves. I still watched the show, but by the time I finally moved into my own tiny flat in 1993, Doctor Who was dead, cancelled in 1989 and with no likelihood of it ever returning.

When, after three pints of Austrian lager in the Fitzroy Tavern, I heard that the young son of a friend’s brother was still – inexplicably – in love with Doctor Who, without a moments thought I said he could have them. So they departed in a box to who knows where. You see, dear reader, like the BBC and their film cans, I too had storage issues and thought the books had no intrinsic value.

Ironically, I did not know that the pub we were in at the time was also the scene of monthly meet ups of Doctor Who fans during the ‘wilderness years’, including many future writers of the revived show. Sadly this was not the first Thursday of the month and there was no young Russell T. Davies or Paul Cornell to overhear and advise me otherwise. So off they went.

Over the years various intrepid people have worked hard to return the missing Doctor Who episodes to the archives and, at the time of writing, the list has been reduced to a still frustrating 97. Meanwhile the show itself did return in glory to become a global phenomenon and BBC mega brand.

Approaching 50 and still a Who fan, I regretted giving away a chunk of my childhood.  I was consoled that they had hopefully inspired someone else as they had me, but had I been just as rash as the BBC junking film cans in the early 70s? It wasn’t about the monetary value: these were all first editions, but their eBay value would be diminished by my insistence on carefully writing my name on the inside cover and re-reading then many, many times. It’s the memories they invoked that I missed. I don’t keep a diary, so music, vintage TV and books work as my own personal memory box, transporting me to a specific time and place when I first read, watched or listened to them, be it Cool For Cats on pink vinyl or the final episode of Catweazle.

Target bookTo scratch the itch I acquired a glorious coffee table book of all the Target covers. Wistfully leafing through it was however a bittersweet experience, admiration for Andrew Skilleter’s stunning artwork and Terrance Dicks incredible productivity was tinged with nostalgia and regret.

As a result of the shows revived success, some of the Target books have been reissued as revered cultural artifacts with introductions by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Stephen Baxter. It wasn’t the same, they were new and fresh and didn’t smell of memories. I particularly felt their absence last year amongst the explosion of nostalgia in Doctor Who’s 50th year – there was even a Radio 4 documentary specifically about the Target books.

Then, in September of the Anniversary year, a miracle.

Not only were two missing stories found and available on iTunes, oh joyous day, but I received a call from my friend. His brother had some books in the attic he thought were mine. Did I want them back or should they throw them out?

It had not even remotely occurred to me that the books would still be around – I’d just assumed that they had been swapped for Power Rangers dolls or disposed of at some Northern car boot sale. But no, they existed, not at a Nigerian TV relay station, but in an attic in Bolton. As missing episodes obsessives will know, rumours of a find have to be dealt with carefully, and the repatriation and recovery process can be a long one. By Christmas the books were moved slightly closer to home from Bolton to Cambridgeshire and last Saturday, en route to a gig in Cambridge, I picked them up…

Inside the box

64 Target novels were neatly packed in an Espresso machine box behind my friend’s sofa. They were in a remarkably good state.  No sign of vinegar and all correctly labeled: no opening The Tenth Planet to find a Reggie Perrin novel instead (OK perhaps I should step away from the missing episodes analogy now).

A few weeks ago there was a thread on Twitter about people’s first Target book. Helpfully I had written the dates on the fly leaves, so I now know that I bought ‘Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks’ in May 1974, just one month ahead of ‘Doctor Who & The Zarbi’.  Some books I had been so determined not to lose, that my address was written inside, extended – lest there be any confusion – to ‘Fulham, London, England, Europe The World, Near Moon, The Universe, The Galaxy’. In one was also inscribed ‘not to be read by Daleks.’ In some  ‘If this book should dare to roam, box its ears and send it home to…’

RubeischRemembering my cousin’s love of Professor Rubeish, I guessed this was probably from The Time Warrior, in which a Sontaran warrior stranded in the middle ages kidnaps scientists from the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s, but don’t go there) to get him home. I picked it up and there on page 33 was the exchange.

So the books are back and I know what I will be reading this summer. However the cycle continues….

Another close friend is having problems encouraging his Who-obsessed ten-year-old to read. Even a Kindle hasn’t done the trick. A Kindle? That’s soulless technology! What he needs is some vintage Terrance Dicks or Malcolm Hulke to get him hooked on reading. So as I head off to visit them in a week I will be packing three Target novels. These will be in the form of a loan and encased in plastic book protectors. Let’s hope they capture his imagination in the same way they did a young Steven Moffat or Peter Capaldi all those years ago and show there is a life outside of MInecraft and Match Attax.

I am told that just occasionally Doctor Who fans use the Internet, although famously they rarely let their opinions be known. However if any are reading this, just let me know: which three Target books from the collection will be the best introduction for a boy who thinks the Silence aren’t scary at all, but is inexplicably traumatised by the sight of the Abzorbalof?

Box it's earsMeanwhile the recovered trove will be serving as my own personal time machine, taking me back through the time vortex to reading ‘Tomb Of The Cybermen’ in my Granddad’s house in Shoreham By Sea (I can hear the birdsong in the street outside even now) or ‘The War Games’ under my desk before an A Level history class (sorry Mr Jones but it was about World War 1 and better than Wilfred Owen).

Both are more powerful memory imprints than when I actually got to see those episodes when they were eventually returned to the BBC archives and restored on shiny DVD.

That’s because there’s no more powerful combination than a child’s imagination and the inside of a good book.

Are Sherlock’s record viewing figures a sign of the time(shift)?

Sherlock

Here’s a link to an article I wrote for Mediatel’s Newsline. I don’t usually post them here as they tend to be more for people in the media research industry, but I thought this article might be of wider interest to any Sherlock fans.

The article looks at the record amounts of people who time-shifted ‘The Empty Hearse’ in the UK or watched it on-demand and puts this in the context of wider trends in TV viewing.

The article also makes the important point that the TV ratings are a measure of viewings, not viewers, so they do include repeated viewings by hardcore fans looking for clues! You can read the full article here.

Having now seen all three of this series, I am going to go against the grain and say that the second one set around the wedding was by far my favourite Sherlock so far.

The Web of Fear returns to a Web Planet

Console

I don’t usually post my media industry columns here as they may not be of wider interest. However my October column for Mediatel’s Newsline coincided with momentous news – the return of two Doctor Who stories that were wiped by the BBC in the early 1970s.

Whilst the fan in me is jubilant at their near miraculous return,  this article looks at the wider implications. How did they come to be destroyed?  As they return in an Internet era  – a Web Planet – in which TV content is far more valued, how is the BBC best placed to make the most of them from a commercial perspective? You can read it here. Also recommended are these lovely Radio Times movie posters for the stories.

Meanwhile for a great transcript of what it was like to listen to the stories before they were resurrected check out the wonderful  ‘Adventures with the Wife in Space’

The First Doctor – all of them….

To celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary this year and fresh back from the GallifreyOne convention in LA, I attempted a portrait of the first Doctor back in 1963, William Hartnell, in his TARDIS. I have never attempted a portrait using oils before and I fear that whilst I am happy with the composition, his face has ended up more as an amalgamation of the four actors who have played the role: William Hartnell (the actual Doctor) , Peter Cushing (the two 60s movies) , Richard Hurndall (The Five Doctors) and David Bradley (An adventure in Time and Space). Nonetheless, here it is, oil on a (fairly large) canvas:

Doctor 1

Here’s the picture is in context:

Doctor in Situ

Is Television now the Predominant Art Form – Quite literally?

wire 1As I was working on a post over at my work website, researchthemedia.com, it occurred to me it might be of wider interest, so apologies if you have already seen it, but I suspect I have a small pool of followers with not much overlap!

I am absolutely convinced that when future media historians look back on the first two decades of the 21st century, seeking to understand what made us tick and get a feel for the cultural zeitgeist, it is to television drama that they will turn first.

This is as a result of the gradual ascendancy of longform serial drama – from HBO, BBC, AMC, FX and many others – over cinema as the defining cultural signifier of the times. Historians will study the despair of The Wire, the angst of The Sopranos, the insanity of Breaking Bad, the nihilism of  the Walking Dead and Sons Of Anarchy, the post 911 paranoia of 24, Battlestar Galactica and Homeland, or Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, looking at the past to understand the present.  Collectively these shows have far outstripped the cultural significance of anything 21st cinema has been able to offer.

Others have argued convincingly that the last couple of decades have seen a recalibration of the relationship between film and television and that we are in a golden age of TV drama.  That is not the purpose of this post, but I firmly believe that the natural successors to 70s and 80s auteurs like Scorsese, Coppola, Allen, Lucas and Spielberg  are now television showrunners or creators like Ronald D. Moore, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Terence Winter, Kurt Sutter, Dan Harmon, Vince Gilligan, Russell T. Davies,  Joss Whedon and Stephen Moffatt amongst many, many others.

However what is also noticeable is the way in which this cultural shift is being reflected in another ubiquitous medium  – the poster or promotional image.

Betty BlueWhen I was at college in the early 80s, the movie poster – pinned or blu-tacked on the walls in student residences – was a statement of ‘this is who I am’. Betty Blue, Clockwork Orange, Terminator, Rebel Without A Clause, Some Like It Hot, Silence of the Lambs, Blade Runner;  all had classic  poster images and designs that anyone over a certain age can summon from memory. Television just did not generate such powerful single images. This was partly because it was the subordinate medium – in artistic terms if not in consumption. Blade runner

No one I knew felt that a Quantum Leap or Cheers poster on their wall would elevate their peer group standing or make them attractive to the opposite sex.

However it was also because the imagery just wasn’t there in the first place. Typically art and design used to promote TV shows was unlikely to amount to a logo and a nice newly composed shot of the cast for the next season, something that still persists to this day for many police procedurals and sitcoms.
mm6-key-art-700It was the rise of ‘serious’ serial dramas – referred to by some as ‘cinematic drama’ that gradually changed things. This came to mind when, earlier this week, I posted the new Mad Men season 6 poster on this blog. Clearly a lot of effort had gone into establishing the sort of image that could be iconic, promote and describe the show and hopefully go ‘viral’. So important was this image formed in the head of showrunner Matthew Weiner that they tracked down a 75 year old commercial artist in the UK to get exactly the image they wanted. We have come a long way from JR and family posing in front of Southfork each year.  I would argue that over the last few years televised drama has not just been the defining video artform, it has also produced some of the most iconic and defining images and artwork of our times. But where did this come from?

twin_peaks_1-727286Going back to the 90s it could be argued that the filmic sensibilities of David Lynch made Twin Peaks a very image-heavy show. Whilst no single poster leaps to mind, show most people this image, used heavily to promote the series and they will know exactly what you are talking about. Laura’s head wrapped in plastic – or Agent Cooper and Audrey sharing a coffee- were starting to crop up on student bedroom walls.

Sopranos

This list is not designed to be definitive but the first TV drama posters that really made me sit up and applaud were those used for The Sopranos. Cast shots, yes, but not like we had really seen them before. The posters attempt to tell a story, they are almost works of art in their own right. The message is clear – this is as good as a movie. But it wasn’t. It was better than that.

The image promoting the last season of Battlestar Galactica was influenced, I suspect, by those Sopranos posters. The posing of each cast member at the ‘Last Supper’ and their interactions is hugely significant and provides clues for what is going to happen. It also makes a great laptop wallpap

BSG Last Supper

These Wire promotional images are getting closer to movie poster territory – simple but effective, but also like The Sopranos and Battlestar, they are attempting to differentiate and define each season’s narrative arc.

Wire 2Wire 3Wire 4

Nowadays, strong imagery is all around us.  Designed to go viral (they are, aren’t they, copyright police?) and to create a buzz. A strong movie-style poster or image is now essential to build or consolidate the image of a show. I have already mentioned Mad Men’s glorious season 6 image, but each of these stunning posters have set the tone for their respective seasons – no less than you might expect from a series about advertising itself.

Mad Men 4 Mad Men 2Mad men 3

So we have gradually moved beyond ensemble cast shots to pop art style iconography and visual semiotics.  How many can think of Breaking Bad without conjuring up Bryan Cranston’s underpants, Battlestar without that red dress, The Killing without that jumper or Sons of Anarchy without those leather jackets?

Breaking BadSOA 2the Killing

This design trend recently arguably reached its height with BBC’s Doctor Who. Recent full seasons of the show had been promoted with a single posterised image, photo-shopped and airbrushed to within an inch of its life.

Angels poster

However for season 33 (yes thirty three) showrunner Stephen Moffatt was looking to make a series of ‘mini-movies’ and new ‘iconic’ poster images were commissioned to promote each individual episode of the season. Coming full circle, these featured movie-style production credits as well. The poster for the episode ‘Angels Take Manhattan’ was arguably the best, whilst the one for ‘Asylum of The Daleks’ even inspired a mural on a Brooklyn wall.

Walking DeadMy point – other than an excuse to show these wonderful pieces of art and design?  Not only is television now leading cinema as the defining dramatic medium of our times, it is also providing the defining visual imagery and icons.

This is just a personal reflection and I am not arguing television is great therefore cinema is bad – they are both broad churches, spanning everything from Boardwalk Empire to the Kardassians, from The Hurtlocker to The Hangover 3. Cinematic poster imagery can still be stunning. However the days of television as a secondary artistic medium, in the literal sense – in terms of generating iconic pieces of art and design –  are clearly long gone.

Mad Men Season 6 Poster

mm6-key-art-700Mad Men is back next month, following the (unusually) tumultuous end of  season 5. Each season has a pretty iconic poster, but this season has a particularly good image, with a real late sixties feel from a British artist active at that time, Brian Sanders. There is an interesting piece in the New York Times about it here.

Meanwhile (spoilers ahead….) will Peggy be a success at her new agency, will Lane’s suicide have lasting repercussions, how much longer will Megan and Don put up with each other, and will Peter realise that his wife is spending most of her time at Community College?