By Stephen Pollard
June 16, 2007
I mentioned below that I'd return to the subject of British audiences. Forgive the narcissism, but here's what I had to say in December 2002:
According to the reviews, the performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony that I went to last week was "transcendent", "emotionally perfect" and "violently good". A friend called me the following morning and told me that it was one of the most powerful experiences of her life.
I wouldn't know. My body was in the concert hall, and my ears are in full working order. But neither were any use to me. The London Symphony Orchestra might as well have been playing "Chopsticks" for all the impact the Mahler had on me. Sitting in the row in front of me, you see, was the family from hell. I don't know their names, but let's call them the Offensive-Morons.
The parents - I assume they were the parents rather than brazen child molesters - spent the entire time stroking and kissing their kids, mock conducting, stretching out their arms across the back of their seats as if they were on the sofa at home and, just for good measure, bobbing their heads up and down in time with the music.
They were cocooned in their own world, with not the slightest concern for anyone around. I doubt that it even crossed their mind that they were doing anything wrong, so unabashed was their behaviour.
Oh yes, I should also have mentioned that Mr Offensive-Moron also seemed to think that the finest expression of his love for his children was to whisper in their ears as the concert wore on and the poor little mites - they were about 10 years old - got bored. When they started getting restless, he didn't whisper to them to sit still, but smiled at them and blew them kisses.
I attempted the tried and tested method of shutting up an annoying neighbour: a well aimed kick in the back of the seat. Nothing. A killer combination of the family's total self-absorption, and the Barbican seat's wooden solidity, meant that the only effect was a painful toe. And Mrs Offensive-Moron made herself fully at home when the mood took her during the quieter passages, snuggling up to her husband and blowing him kisses.
This particular family may have been especially horrific, but they are merely grotesque extensions of the downside of the increasing accessibility of culture. The old formal rules of behaviour at the theatre, concerts and opera - dressing up in black tie and all that, and the feeling that unless you were part of a closed circle then it wasn't your lot to attend - were indeed far too stifling.
The laissez-faire attitude of today may have opened up cultural institutions to millions, but there is a downside. Today, you come as you please, and behave as you please. It's your right. If you want to flick through your programme, fine. If you want to use your programme as a fan - a particular favourite during the summer Proms in the Royal Albert Hall - fine. If you want to cough, fine.
If you want to unwrap sweets, fine. If you want to fidget, fine. If you want to wander off to the loo, fine. If you want to chat, fine. And if you believe some of the stories - I have to confess this is not something I have (yet) witnessed myself - then if you want to have sex, fine. When going out is as easy, and as normal, as staying in, then we behave the same in the theatre, or the concert hall, as we do in the living room. And so we don't have a thought for those around us.
But we are not at home. The very point of the theatre is to be out of the house, and part of a crowd. And being part of a crowd has obligations - not shouting "fire" for devilment, for example, in a crowded room. When I go to White Hart Lane I do not want to hear someone near me shout "come on Arsenal". I behave as is expected of me.
The root of the problem is that we have moved too far from the oppressive rules of old in the other direction. Culture is now too readily accessible. We don't need to make an effort with it.
You wanna hear Beethoven's Ninth? Pop on a CD. Fancy the St Matthew Passion? Which version?
We have forgotten - or, more truthfully, never learned - how to listen. When the St Matthew Passion was written it was heard at Easter, once every very few years. A performance was an event, an event which we had no way of even attempting to recreate. Today, we can record the performance and then listen to it in the bath. We can have its choruses playing as background music while we eat.
When was the last time you sat down in your own home to listen to a full performance of a piece of music, with no other distractions? When, in fact, was the last time you spent an hour focused on any one thing, and that one thing alone?
It's hardly surprising that we take that behaviour, and that attitude, into the concert hall with us. Mr and Mrs Offensive-Moron, and the little Offensive-Morons, might indeed have ruined my concert last week, but one thing is for sure: they are going to ruin quite a few others as they get older.