Why David Niven and the amateurs behind Jamaica Inn will always be on Separate Tables

Jamaica Inn: It's a bit rich for highly paid executives to blame the actors

Jamaica Inn: first the BBC blamed technical problems, then 'mumbling' actors

'Always know when it is your time to leave the stage': David Niven

First published in Paul Welsh
Last updated
Borehamwood Times: Photograph of the Author by

I am going to start today by having a bit of a moan.

The BBC spent millions on TV drama Jamaica Inn and then received thousands of complaints about the sound quality.

First they seemed to blame a technical fault with the transmission of the first episode, which is fair enough. However, the problem continued and on their own news website the controller of drama commissioning responded to the complaints. I assume a six-figure salary goes with the fancy title so I expected a reasoned response. Instead, he partly blamed the actors for
mumbling their lines.

Well I am a simple fellow, but in my day I would assume such an executive would monitor the production while it was being shot and certainly before transmission to spot such a problem.

In the case of the actors, if they were truly mumbling their lines, I would simply have replaced them. There are plenty of talented actors, even if the TV companies tend to want to use the same ones. If an actor has been cast, learned a script and been paid for it, I would at least expect them to share the dialogue with the audience.

The BBC and other film and TV companies also need to remember that 23 million people in this country are over 50 and it is a medical fact that the human ear has problems hearing the range of the human voice in later years. Stop aiming everything at the under 30s and in the case of the BBC, remember we are paying for this below-par production.

Well, enough of commenting on amateurs and let us go back in time more than 30 years ago when I went to Elstree Studios to interview a star of Hollywood’s golden era – David Niven.

It was on the set of A Man Called Intrepid and I think it must have been about 1979.

David had first filmed at the old National Studios, now the BBC Elstree Centre, in the late 1940s, but had been part of the tinsel town scene since the early 1930s.

He was destined to film several times in Borehamwood up until the 1970s, but usually in forgettable films.

David told me: “I can never understand how my career has lasted for such a long time as most of my films have been pretty poor. Very occasionally I got a good part, as in Separate Tables, for which I won an Oscar, but that was quickly undone by more poor films.”

David was a favourite with talk show hosts and wrote two highly-successful autobiographies called The Moon’s A Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses, but confided in me not to take them too seriously in terms of accuracy.

Indeed, other actors told me he had pinched stories that had actually happened to them and fictionalised other parts of his life, which is why he refused ever to be the subject of This Is Your Life.

David was liked by everybody in the crew and seemed to need to be liked. Like all of us he had a dark side, especially after a few gins, but we are all human.

I asked him how he chose which parts to accept. David replied: “First I look to see if it involves some interesting locations and then see if any of my chums have been cast. At this point in my life the script and plot do not really matter.”

Sadly, David was to develop an awful wasting illness that took his life in 1983. In those days I tended to ask for a bit of life advice at the end of the interview as I was still in my twenties.

David said: “Paul, always know when it is your time to leave the stage,” and I think he was right, although now in my 60s I have not yet walked off into the wings.

Until next week, if you see me out say hello and look after yourself.

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