REVIEW: Jamaica Inn (BBC One)

Has Mouthbox been enchanted by the Beeb’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic or is it all lost in translation? 

I love Cornwall, I go there all the time, and I have never had any trouble understanding the delightful Cornish accent. So, what in God’s name is the language they’re speaking in BBC One′s new adaptation of Jamaica Inn? I began by turning up the volume, thinking I simply had the TV on too quietly. When I still couldn’t catch what most of the cast were trying to say, I tried listening on headphones like a language student struggling to revise for a forthcoming aural exam. But however much I concentrated, rewound on TiVo or adjusted the audio controls, I could only manage to pick out about one word in fifty.

Most inaccessible of all was the dialogue uttered by Sean Harris, as violent, drink-soaked smuggler Joss. Joss produced a baffling array of mumbles, whispers and grunts, delivered through the upper-nasal cavity in a West Country accent so thick it might as well have been first generation Klingon. Even headstrong barmaid Mary – played by Jessica Brown Findlay off Downton Abbey – had trouble understanding the ramblings of her thuggish, inebriated uncle, and pointed out as much on more than one occasion. “I don’t understand,” she said at one point, and Britain breathed a huge sigh of relief that not every viewer in the country had simultaneously gone deaf.

Uncle Joss turned out to be a bit of a nineteenth century Basil Fawlty – a reluctant innkeeper who “don’t like people staying,” and would rather go down to the beach and crush people’s heads with his bare hands. He also had a nasty habit of grabbing people around the throat and shoving them up against walls – a style of behavior that was similarly reminiscent of Mr. Fawlty at his least hospitable.

Matthew McNulty was in it, of course. He’s in all the BBC costume dramas and probably hasn’t had a day off work in about seven years. Poor old Matthew must be sick to the back teeth of heavily colour-corrected, windswept moors full of clattering stage coaches and women wading up to their knees in muddy bogs. He looks like he could do with a couple of weeks in the Canaries. Maybe his agent needs to learn how to say “no” from time to time.

Finally giving up on trying to follow the dialogue, I turned my attentions to Mary’s heavy, full-length velvet dress. This character’s fondness for bog wading at a variety of different depths meant that in every scene the dark stain around the hem of this garment moved up and down, up and down, like the rise and fall of the tidal Thames at Teddington. I eventually found myself trying to guess at which level the watermark would appear next, and I have every intention of turning this pastime into a drinking game while I am watching episode three of Jamaica Inn (with the subtitles turned on).


Self-proclaimed frog prince of the TV bloggers, Mouthbox has worked as a senior web editor at the BBC, a comedy writer for Channel 4 and as a producer for Channel 5. He loves to write about himself in the third person.

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1 Comment

  1. leeann says:

    I had a lot of trouble understanding Joss at times, but no one else. I deciphered everything pretty clearly. This despite being American and never having visited Cornwall.

    But I think this can be explained by the now firmly established tradition of under-enunciating in American TV and film. It is meant to add authenticity, and often does. But it takes practice to master the different accents, which vary not only from region to region but from actor to actor portraying said region. Anyone have trouble understanding Jeff Bridges in “True Grit?” I didn’t really. But then I’ve lived in Texas for a while.

    Not to rag on male actors, but there is no question they suffer from this more than the female ones do. I don’t know why, but I think an investigation is in order. Female actors should be allowed to mumble too, dammit! And not just when they’re playing drunks or addicts.

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