Wednesday 17 February 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the Strangely Silent Eighties

Those of us who find ourselves straying from terrestrial television in a bid to find something worth watching (if it's only Two and a Half Men) will be aware that the commercial breaks on many channels are not only amazingly long but also extremely loud. Now ITV3 has got into trouble for 'excessively strident' ad breaks during an episode of Sherlock Holmes. It's all about 'subjective loudness', and ITV3's defence is interesting: this Sherlock Holmes (the definitive TV version) was made in the Eighties and is therefore full of silent pauses, making the ads seem louder than they are. A bit of a lame argument perhaps, but based on truth. It's a reminder of how different TV drama was just a couple of decades ago, when it was not afraid of silence, or of inactivity, or of words. To watch such Eighties epics as Brideshead Revisited or The Jewel in the Crown now is to be amazed not only at the 'silent pauses' but at the leisurely pace, at the restrained use of music, and at how packed with serious dense dialogue - and static scenes - they are. Television dramas now keep dialogue minimal and functional, while filling the screen with (often pointless) activity, and laying on washes of music at every opportunity - and yet, despite the appearance of activity, they rarely get anywhere much. Compare an episode of a standard US crime drama with its UK equivalent - there is more meat in one crisply-scripted 40-minute episode than in an entire British miniseries. The mainstream TV dramas that reach the small screen these days are busy all right, and loud - but they are busy doing nothing.


  1. The same is true of films. I was watching something forgettable the other night and thinking how films of the 1940s hooked me with relatively little happening, yet modern films bore me despite the abundance of action.

  2. 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' and 'Smiley's People' are another slow and deliberate delight. Alec Guinness does near to nothing so meaningfully it's almost a form of magic. (They're available on DVD.)

  3. The combination of sound engineer incompetence and loud music means that I often can't hear the dialogue anyway. Sometimes I provide my own. "How are Stenhousemuir doing this season?": that sort of thing. It's odd how often it's the girls who make this enquiry.

  4. Has anyone else noticed how curiously quiet Channel 4 news is compared to the adverts? In my eagerness to hear the headlines, I may (inadvertently) catch the end of Hollyoaks - which is even louder than the adverts - and always seems to end explosively with screaming, fire, or some disturbingly noisy furore... it makes any news seem positively innocuous.

  5. thats why I mostly only like 60's and 70's movies. Watching a mostly silent film like 'Pale Rider' late at night with a good whiskey is a most enjoyable experience. Silence lets the images speak for themselves, which creates a more memorable experience

  6. Talking of the endless ads on the satellite channels, which used to make those channels almost unwatcheable, the advent of Virgin (or Sky) Plus has made them watchable again.

    Great sport to be had in fastforwarding the ads at x32 speed and attempting to press Play just as the last one finishes.

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  8. "the restrained use of music" !!!
    That's the key phrase, the missing element in so much today, TV and movies, American or English.
    Producers/directors must think that we are as dead-souled as they are and need to be led by music to find what we feel.

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