A heckled comedian can answer back. But for actors the show must go on - as Sir Peter Hall knows

At the climax of a performance of Uncle Vanya, the film and theatre director interrupted from the stalls to make it known he thought the performance sub-par


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 comedian Daniel Kitson is the king of this) makes everyone believe that it’s all part of the fun. The point being that a comedian can tell the offender to piss off without breaking character.

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 became aware of either a quiet heckle or a noisy mutter. It was Sir Peter Hall, who is 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.”

While many of us may have felt that way at the theatre, it isn’t polite to say so. I myself, when watching Hall’s production of The Bacchae at the National some years ago, felt very much like bellowing those exact same words. But I contained myself.

Sir Peter has apologised for the remarks, saying they weren’t directed at 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 on stage while someone snores through our work might have thought.

Hopefully, Carmichael feels better now but there are actors less than keen to forgive. Ethel Merman once left the stage, mid-note, to bundle a drunken heckler into the street. Katharine Hepburn yelled at someone who wouldn’t stop taking 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.

That’s not the worst that can happen to a heckler. Last week, Stuart Rodger was sentenced to 100 hours of community service for heckling David Cameron. Sir Peter Hall might consider himself lucky to get away with an apology.

Five Go Mad For HG Wells

I mainly feel sad about the news that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books are to be made into a TV series, since – according to the producers – the growing demand for adventure stories correlates with children spending more time indoors.

But 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 will be time travel.

Yes, time travel. It turns out that our fad for Keep-Calm-and-Wear-Cath-Kidston style nostalgia needs a bit of HG Wells 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 while questioning its values. And that’s a time-travel trick worthy of Dr Who himself.


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