Several million viewers on Sunday tuned in to watch the first episode of the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Jamaica Inn, but not, in the event, to hear it.
Daphne du Maurier’s book about Cornish smugglers is, I seem to recall, readable but insubstantial. On the BBC it was rendered unwatchable and inaudible. Some viewers activated sub-titles. Others abandoned the show in droves.
Just about every outdoor scene was set under a lowering sky, which for some reason always seemed to be scudding across the screen at high speed. The rain fell incessantly; much of the time the actors were dragging themselves through mud. If I were in charge of the Cornish Tourist Board I would register a strong complaint, because Jamaica Inn may have wrecked the prospects for a decent summer season. The interiors were no better – so far beyond gloomy that it was hard to identify who was in them. “Is that you, Mary,” someone asks – a line that may have been in the script, but may have been an actor trying to locate a cast member.
As impenetrable as the Stygian atmospherics must have been for viewers with fading eyesight, the dialogue was a problem for the hard of hearing. In response to hundreds of viewers’ complaints the BBC initially blamed technical problems with the sound. A spokesman later amended this to an implied admission of problems with the actors’ diction.
The worst offender by far was Sean Harris, playing the dastardly and drunken inn-keeper Joss, who delivered his lines in a whispery croak, as if he were struggling with a bad case of laryngitis, had consumed too much ale, and was struggling to remove an adhesive piece of cough-drop from his teeth with his tongue. It didn’t help that his head was usually bent over, as if examining the floor for mouse-droppings. He appeared in all three episodes and in just about every scene, and failed to catch more than a handful of sentences.
I am not familiar with the actor but assuming that Mr. Harris is normally perfectly coherent, the blame for his performance here must lie with the director. I refrain for mentioning her name to spare her embarrassment. Perhaps they are attempting to revive the style of acting referred to back in the 1950s as ‘method’, of which Marlon Brando was the best known exponent.
I’m at a loss to explain why I sat through each episode of Jamaica Inn, but the BBC had put millions into the production and intended to showcase it as the kind of period drama at which it excels. I suppose I was hoping, as I peered through the gloom, that the weather would improve and the sound become clearer. They never did.
Even if I could have seen and heard what was going on, I suspect that I would not have been impressed. Not a single character grabbed my attention; hardly a scene seemed designed to move the story forward.
Jamaica Inn was, in short, a complete shambles, an empty Cornish pasty. Of everyone involved, in front of the camera and behind, the late Terry-Thomas might have said: “You’re a shower, a complete and utter shower.”