HEADLINES

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

DECIVILISATION

David Cameron yesterday called for a challenge to the increasing acceptance of anti-social behaviour as the norm.

"We all have experience of road rage, Tube rage, never mind what is said if you ask someone not to drop litter or cycle on the pavement," Mr Cameron told the Royal Society of Arts in London. "All these are sad signs of a culture that is becoming de-civilised."

He should be applauded for talking about a subject which, on a day-to-day level, concerns people perhaps more than any other. The cultural and lesiure worlds are also far from immune from increasingly selfish public behaviour - to the extent that many are increasingly taking the option to 'go private', stay at home and avoid the public arena altogether.

Here's a piece which NCF director Peter Whittle wrote for The Spectator back in 2005 on this particular aspect of a hugely important issue:


SLURPS, BURPS AND BLEEPS

Peter Whittle on the misery of being surrounded by slobs in theatres and cinemas.


A few weeks ago I left a performance of Vera Drake emotionally drained. As the lights came up I felt a mixture of indignation, suppressed anger and loathing for the injustices human beings inflict on each other. It took a couple of stiff glasses to settle me down.

Unfortunately it wasn't the abortion theme in Mike Leigh's drama which had brought this on, or Imelda Staunton's quivering performance. It was rather that I had just endured two hours of sitting next to a slob who'd loudly munched his way through two bags of popcorn. With legs sprawled and eyes fixed emotionlessly on the screen, he could have been channel surfing in a hotel room. His hand went robotically from bag to mouth, the motion unaffected by any of the movie's highs or lows. Caught in the corner of my eye, this monotonous action was like an irritating eyelash obscuring my vision. Discrete attempts at registering disapproval – subtle coughs and sideways glances - failed to have the desired impact. He was utterly, noisily oblivious to my discomfort, and he ruined the film for me.

As anti-social behaviour goes, this was hardly Asbo material. But then neither is queue jumping, or the use of train seats as foot rests. They're widespread habits which fly well under the radar of arrestable offence but which in their ugliness impoverish everyday life. And, whether it is brain-dead grazing and incessant chattering in cinemas, or the ringing of mobile phones and group coughing in theatres, or mindless American-style whooping at the end of a ballet, the cultural world is not immune. 'You should get out more' might be one of today's mantras, but maybe the cool option really is to stay in with your books, CDs and DVDs. Either that, or risk feeling genuinely homicidal by the end of what should have been an uplifting, thought-provoking or even just mildly diverting evening out.

Last year Kevin Spacey, just installed as artistic director of the Old Vic, railed against the ever-growing chorus of sweet sucking and ring tones during theatre performances. 'My feeling is if people don't know how to behave, they shouldn't come,' he declared courageously. He'd already shown the strength of his feeling on this by snapping 'Tell them we're busy!' when a phone went off while he was on stage during The Iceman Cometh. Similarly the actor Richard Griffiths went so far as to stop a recent performance of The History Boys at the National Theatre, exasperated by the persistent beeping of a pager. 'I'm sorry, but I can't compete with your electronic device,' he declared to the mortification of the culprit, receiving an enthusiastic round of applause from the rest of the house.

Of course when actors speak up they risk being mocked as typically precious luvvies. And some theatre people, aware of charges of elitism and endlessly straining to appear modishly accessible, play down disruptive behaviour. It was ever thus, they say, and quote the tired old comparisons with the unruliness of Shakespearean audiences. Or they see it as the theatre's responsibility. David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, asserts that if people aren't paying attention, the theatre isn't doing its job. 'You cannot blame an audience if it isn't engaged with what you're doing,' he says.

Well, up to a point. But what if large sections of the audience are indeed engaged but are having their enjoyment of a play or film sabotaged by the growing yob tendency, those people from all parts of the social spectrum who do what they want, when they want, and bugger the rest? It can make one feel murderous. Watching The Nutcracker at the ENO at Christmas, we had a family in front of us who, attention span presumably stretched to breaking point, had obviously grown restless. They fidgeted, chatted, and sat dangling their trainer-clad feet over the empty row in front of them. As the mother dozed, the two teenage daughters got up and wandered about from seat to seat, indifferent to both what was happening on stage and the obvious irritation of those of us square enough to be sitting quietly.

For many, the experience of live performance is probably to be approached in the same solipsistic way as watching a DVD at home. So they dress appropriately too. You really don't have to be a reactionary old fogy to find demoralising the sight of ropey tracksuit bottoms amid splendid architecture built to celebrate the highs of the artistic spirit. Such torpid lack of effort goes along with inconsiderate behaviour; it suggests at the very least no sense of occasion, at the worst a general cultural enervation. What's the big deal?

No, in the narcissistic spirit of our age, it's all about letting others be damned. Even in expressing your appreciation of a performance, you have to be saying something about yourself. Those who've shown every sign of utter boredom (such as sleeping), rally themselves enough to whoop like demented hyenas on a TV game show when the curtain comes down. This imported practise makes the self-centred feel part of the artistic process – you've had your moment, they're saying, now I'll have mine. 'Is it another mark of the Me generation?' wrote Arlene Croce in the New Yorker when it was first heard on the American scene years ago. 'All the traditional audience vocables – Bravos, oles - say You were wonderful; they're directed to the performer. These wordless woofs say, I'm wiped out.'

Perhaps old-fashioned clapping is just too, well, altruistic. But what about making equally quaint requests of others to desist from talking, playing with sweet wrappings or dumping partners by mobile? This can be hazardous; much of our interaction with strangers now carries a bat squeak of underlying violence, and the friends I canvassed for their cinema experiences said roughly the same thing: it's not worth the aggro. Civil codes have been up-ended to the extent that now you're considered the rude one for protesting, however gently you do it. You wait, shoulders taut, for the stream of foul-mouthed abuse, or the kick in the back of the chair. It's easier to move, and let them win.

In the theatre however, you're stuck in the same seat. Jonathan, a TV producer friend, witnessed an incident at a West End matinee which resulted in the police being called. "Two teenagers had been making so much noise during the performance that a middle-aged lady had to turn round and ask them to be quiet, a heroic act in the minds of most of us,' he says. 'For this, she was rewarded with a slap across the back of the head and all sorts of unpleasant threats for the rest of the play. From the point of view of these kids, some stupid middle-aged stiff had shown them a colossal disrespect by daring to ask them to be quiet.'

An extreme example perhaps, and on the general scale of social breakdown, bad audience behaviour remains low priority. It's not going to make Panorama. But ignored it becomes just another little incentive for us to abandon the public arena in favour of an increasingly private existence. We could follow the lead of the French, who have recently installed phone signal blocking in their cinemas, theatres and concert halls; if we can't rely on personal restraint, then maybe Nanny will have to intervene. In the meantime, there's nothing for it but to continue suffering in silence - albeit one punctuated by slurps, burps and bleeps.

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