Judi Dench: ‘Young actors need to work on their vocal technique’

Judi Dench is a Drama Studio London alumni. Photo: Pamela Raith
Judi Dench. Photo: Pamela Raith
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Judi Dench is the latest actor to criticise younger performers for poor diction.

In a speech before unveiling a blue plaque at the former home of actor John Gielgud, Dench complained that younger actors are not applying themselves to develop their vocal technique, expressing her frustration at not being able to hear them properly.

She aimed criticism particularly at BBC One’s 2014 drama Jamaica Inn, saying: “I know [it was set in] Cornwall, but it was ridiculous. Often I want to shout out, ‘Will you say that again because I can’t hear!’ It is an apathy – laziness.”

The drama attracted complaints from viewers at the time, and was the first in a succession of BBC dramas that angered audiences. Police drama Happy Valley came under fire in 2016 for actors’ mumbling, and prompted an investigation by BBC director general Tony Hall.

Dench, who worked with Gielgud in several plays, including a renowned production of The Cherry Orchard in 1962, said: “If you’re not going to be heard, then stay at home and do it in your living room. It doesn’t require shouting, it requires learning about it and learning where your voice comes from, where your diaphragm is and how to use it.”

Her comments follow similar criticisms from other stage veterans. In March, director Michael Blakemore expressed concerns that younger actors do not know how to project their voices.

Actor Sian Phillips, in an interview with The Stage last year, said that “The only thing that hasn’t improved with the times is audibility, the voice, which is a great problem for a lot of younger actors.

“Young actors seem to think it is more natural to talk quietly, more realistic, but in the theatre the trick is to be natural enough to be heard. You must be heard.”

Dench also hit out at a lack of curiosity in finding out about the history of theatre.

She said: “What is so shocking now is that young actors don’t want to find out about the legacy that we left. They don’t want to know about Garrick and Irving and Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans. That seems to me a terrible shame.

“Although the fashion now may not be to speak the way that John and Peggy and Ralph [Richardson] and Sir Laurence [Olivier] spoke. Nevertheless, if you listen to Sir John, you will always get the meaning of what Shakespeare means, you always get the meanings.”