Dealing with a heckler is a tough job. For comedians, it’s just par for the course. People feel like they’re helping out by joining in, and the look of glee on the face of someone demolished by a heckler-squashing maestro (stand-up Daniel Kitson is the king of this) makes everyone believe that it’s all part of the fun. The crucial point is that a comedian can tell the persistent offender to piss off without breaking character.
But for actors, it’s much trickier. Breaking character to tell someone to turn off the damn phone or stop coughing can spoil the whole performance. So most suffer in silence, like poor Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith from Downton Abbey). During her final speech in Uncle Vanya, some of the audience heard either a quiet heckle or a noisy mutter coming from Peter Hall. He’s reported to have said, ‘Stop, stop, stop. It doesn’t work and you don’t work. It is not good enough. I could be at home watching television.’
And while many of us may have felt that way at the theatre, it really isn’t polite to say so. I myself, when watching Peter Hall’s production of The Bacchae at the National some years ago, felt very much like bellowing those exact same words, but luckily I contained myself. I had rashly joked that on the way in that the only way the show could reach its projected running time was if they did all the choruses twice, which is (in my memory) precisely what then happened. I have never spoken in levity since.
Peter Hall has since apologised for the remarks, saying that they weren’t directed at Laura Carmichael or the production, but were prompted by his disorientation, after he’d fallen asleep. Obviously, falling asleep is itself a bit of a critical judgement, as those of us who have stood gamely onstage while someone snores through our work might have thought. But hopefully Carmichael feels better after the apology.
Other actors have been less than keen to forgive audience slights. Ethel Merman once left the stage, mid-note, to bundle a drunken heckler into the street. And Katharine Hepburn yelled at an enthusiast who wouldn’t stop taking flash photographs, ‘Get out, get out. I’ll pay you twice what you paid for the ticket.’ Legend has it that her fan was escorted, weeping, from the theatre.
And that’s not the worst that can happen to a heckler. Last week, Stuart Rodger, who yelled, ‘No public sector cuts’ at David Cameron (in Glasgow, where I honestly believed that shouting at Tories was a moral, possibly even a legal obligation), was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. So Peter Hall might consider himself lucky to get away with an apology.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about the news that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books are to be made into a TV series. Mainly sad, since according to the programme’s producers, there is an increasing demand for adventure stories, which apparently correlates with children spending more time indoors.
And then, after I’ve finished feeling sad about children, pressing their noses against the window like woeful puppies longing to go out, I feel alarmed. The Famous Five series will have a contemporary twist. And that contemporary twist (I am checking frantically to be sure this isn’t a hoax) will be time travel.
No, don’t cry. Yes, time-travel. It turns out that our current fad for Keep Calm and Wear Cath Kidston-style nostalgia needs a bit of HG Wells is chucked in too. So George and Timmy the dog will be heading back in time which will, I guess, enable the programme-makers to maintain the integrity of the piece (a girl called Fanny, for a start) while questioning its values. And that’s a time-travel trick worthy of Dr Who himself.