How to handle the hecklers

When audiences turn nasty Tony Blair suffered a series of interruptions to his speech at the TUC this week. But unwanted interventions are a fact of life for many public performers. As the party conference season begins, Helen Brown finds out how they cope
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Indy Politics

Mark Steel, COMEDIAN AND COMMENTATOR

The idea that comics need some brilliant put-down for hecklers is a myth. If you're going down well anyway you don't need one. If you're going down badly you can feel it coming; it's like the wind before a storm. It's the same for politicians as it is for comics.

If anyone had shouted at Tony Blair when he was first elected it wouldn't have mattered; it matters now because everybody hates him.

Wherever I go I take the piss out of the locals. At the Glee Club in Wales I had this Welsh nationalist going on at me and I waited until he'd finished and then pointed up at the huge "Glee Club" sign on the wall and said: "It's just that you Welsh can't stand seeing two vowels together, isn't it? You probably think it's some sort of English imperialism or something."

Dara O'Briain, COMEDIAN AND PRESENTER

My main tips on dealing with hecklers would be, "Never stop talking. Don't pause. Learn to breathe like a didgeridoo player and don't give them a window to come in".

And never do a gig at the TUC. Tony Blair's big mistake was waiting for laughter; the laughter should come to you. Especially when you're dealing with a hostile crowd.

I just rain a stream of words at the audience so they're still trying to catch up with the last sentence. But you can also avoid rehearsed put-downs and rhetorical questions because the audience will always answer those for you. When you ask a question of an audience member you need to almost absorb that person. It's about owning the room.

You can actually be heckled by silence. One person doesn't laugh and your eye is drawn to that person like a bull to a red rag. In Canterbury once there was one of those. I said to the guy: "What's wrong?" He said, "I was expecting some jokes". That was a killer.

I always re-track through the audience members I've spoken to and get the audience to applaud each one. I got to this man, and said, "Give it up for the guy who didn't laugh" and the bugger stood up and took a bow.

Steve Williams, STAND-UP COMIC

Because of the way my shows work, I tend to run with audience contributions. Weird interjections tend to disappear into the act.

But this year I was doing a gig in the North-east and I asked this lad why he was sitting sideways on to the stage. He replied that he only had one eye.

Sensing a lie, I callously said: "Sir, I wasn't asking you how many vowels in the word bin." He turned round to show me the other eye wasn't attached.

I became ocularly obsessed and he took out his prosthetic eye and lobbed it up to me. Tom Jones gets ladies' underwear thrown at him. I get false eyes.

I was shocked and, not knowing much about artificial eye etiquette, I touched it with my tongue. I don't remember what it tasted like but it felt like a jellyfish, soft and rubbery. I do remember being appalled at my behaviour at the time. I wish I'd never done it. To use Tony Blair's words, it wasn't exactly my finest hour.

But the lad had upped the ante by throwing his eye on the stage and I just went one further. It has certainly been a stand-out moment in my professional career, being heckled with a prosthetic organ.

Tony Benn, LABOUR GRANDEE

I was once speaking at a school and the place was packed. Jammed to the rafters, hot and incredibly stuffy. This chap interrupted once. And then he interrupted again. I said: "Let's hear what this gentleman has to say." It turned out he was calling for somebody to open a window.

I've actually got a lot of time for hecklers because they're passionate people with something to say. Sometimes they can ask impossible questions. My father once had a heckler who asked: "What hope is there for the country if people like you get elected?" It was an unanswerable question.

But I normally stop speeches to engage with hecklers, and I've invited them on stage. If they don't have a point to make you try to deal with the situation as politely as you can. The best speech at last year's Labour Party conference was made by a heckler.

It was a one-word speech. Walter Wolfgang said: "Nonsense!" It will probably be on his ID card for life. Or if we do not get ID cards, it will still be on the database.

Ann Widdecombe, CONSERVATIVE MP

I can't think of a particularly good heckle I've had. But I do believe hecklers should be handled with humour. If people are aggressive you can either ignore them or give a quip back; it depends on the situations. I think comedians get more good-natured hecklers than politicians do.

Lucy Porter, COMEDIAN

"Get your tits out" is still the number one heckle for comediennes. Last weekend I was heckled by a bloke who shouted: "You've got bingo wings!" It was such a horrible thing to say. I'm not fat. And I just snapped back: "Well you've got man boobs." It degenerated into a debate about who was the more physically inadequate. Sometimes hecklers can be very funny, and generally I like people joining in.

I used to do a routine about dating a ventriloquist. I said: "One of the weirdest things is when you start hearing voices when a guy's going down on you." And a guy shouted out: "It was probably just the echo." It was sharp, funny; I laughed.

Politicians should learn to get their heads down and not leave gaps for a hostile crowd. If Tony Blair wants to spend a couple of hours with me I'd be really happy to teach him how to handle the hecklers.

I mean, if you've been slow-handclapped by the Women's Institute, how on earth do you think you can handle the TUC? I could teach him a couple of classic put-downs.

Jeffrey Archer, NOVELIST AND EX-CONVICT

I remember at the by-election in Immingham in 1969, when Ian Macleod was shadow Chancellor. We arrived at a meeting and a policeman said: "I've thrown the 'ecklers out". Macleod replied: "Throw them back in again." He loved it; they were meat and drink to him. My first heckle was in Romford in 1966, for a GLC election, and there were seven people in the audience. Three were asleep. One shouted, "The Tories have done nothing for me", and I peed my pants. I've never forgotten that. I went home in a rather smelly and disgraceful state.

You're at a tremendous advantage if you have the stage and you have a microphone. But the heckler can still wear you down. I was addressing the Conservative Association at the London University 15 years ago, with 150 people in the audience, when 12 more suddenly came in and the chairman behind me whispered that was the Labour club.

One pretty, but not well-washed, woman started heckling. "Get rid of the Tories!" on and on. I said: "It's clear that the lady on the end is not going to let me complete my speech. I'm going to turn this into a question and answer session and the first question goes to the lady on the end."

She said: "I'm no effing lady", and I said: "Well, at last we've found something we can agree on." The 12 of them never spoke again. They were clearly frightened. They thought I would be that clever again. The truth is, it may have been one of the best replies I've ever given.

Alexei Sayle, COMEDIAN AND COMMENTATOR

You should always leave 18 months between tours, but I think I'd been to Bristol twice in the same year. I did a gag and some bloke shouted: "You did that last time." I had a prepared put-down, which was, "Well, you're a daft twat to pay to hear it again", and he said, "You said that last time as well." That was pretty good. I had to say: "You win."

My wife used to informally handle security and if drunks became a problem she'd just wait until they went to the toilet and get security to escort them out. The worst thing you can do is get security to pull hecklers out of a crowd because it turns everyone against you.

I was doing a warm-up gig in an arts centre in Devon years ago and as I was about to go on, a woman said there was a deaf and dumb man in the audience who'd had too much to drink. He was going, "Ooooeeeaaghh!" You couldn't put him down because he couldn't hear you.

I heard that when Bono was performing recently he said; "Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies". And some bloke shouted, "Well stop bloody clapping then." Brilliant.

Douglas Hurd, FORMER CONSERVATIVE FOREIGN SECRETARY

How you deal with hecklers depends on what they have to say. If they're asking a straight political question you should answer with humour and honesty. If they're insulting you then you should give a good quip back.

Often, good hecklers can bring out the best in a speaker and invigorate debate. I've just been reading the local papers from my grandfather's time, in the 1920s, when the remarks of hecklers were reported as part of the tournament.And when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge - during two general elections - we would go and heckle the local Labour candidates in a good-natured way. It was to throw them. It was a kind of wrestling. We'd shout, "And how's your butler going to vote?"

I think we've lost the art of heckling today. The quality of argument has gone. It's just booing or slow handclapping; it's not about debate any more.

Sarah Teather, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT MP

You do get heckled at functions. But few election hustings have members of the public in the audience. They're mainly party activists. So there's always a good deal of heckling and it's really obvious when people are plants from other parties.

They're usually wearing red stickers or you've seen them out delivering or at every other hustings shouting the same stuff. Hustings can be quite depressing in that way.

You always hope they're going to be public meetings and engage the public but they're normally just the same group of interested individuals. And it can get aggressive.

The other heckling I have to cope with is in the House of Commons and there your best bet is to ignore it unless it's really funny. Because if you actually refer to it then it goes into Hansard.

If you don't refer to it and it's not especially audible then it doesn't get recorded and it looks as if you've made a perfect, uninterrupted speech when people were actually shouting personal abuse.

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