The Greatest Unseen Performance

I believe I once read (or heard) that a woman attending a play in which Paul Scofield was starring, suddenly shouted at him from her distant and lofty seat: "Speak up - you're mumbling!"

If I am right about this (and maybe I dreamed it, though most of my dreams are not particularly inventive), Scofield did speak louder, and afterward remarked that the woman was quite right; after all, she had paid for her ticket.

Theoretically, I am in favor of audience rights.

In practice, though, I mostly speak back to actors on TV - in the non-confrontational privacy of home. And not just actors, but people like weathermen and newscasters. Tongue-twisted in a gallant attempt to say "Radovan Karadzic" or "Lech Walesa," readers of the news are likely to get my vocal encouragement. "Spit it out, man!" or "If you can't say simple words, why are you paid so much?"

I think half of me is convinced they can hear me; yet some of them never seem to learn, in spite of all my good advice.

The weather-persons are my btes noirs par excellence. In Britain we have a particular breed of female weather-pronouncer. They all have the same cloned weather-person voice. (I even wonder if they are not perhaps dubbed.) It is high-pitched to the point of infantitude. It emerges stridently through large white teeth permanently frozen like the white cliffs of Dover in the center of a large white smile. This wide, good-weather mouth stays the same whether it announces typhoons or heat waves, brisk breezes in the Shetlands or drought in Devon. The words it enunciates have precisely the same scrupulous simplicity and understanding patience that one would use when talking to a very small child.

I tend toward the expressive when these matronizing cool-front exponents show up on our screens, twittering in front of their maps. I either switch them off (in the hope that they later hear about this sudden drop in audience ratings) or I start imitating them unmercifully. Their gestures (stiff), their mannequin dress-sense (a disastrous penchant for scarlet polyester punctuated with rows of gold-plated buttons), and their wig-immaculate coiffures (so groomed they might be carved), all come in for generous comment. "Look at you! You are unreal! You look as though you've never even been out in the wind or rain you are predicting so knowingly...."

Yet they seem oddly oblivious to my remarks.

Sometimes TV people - sports commentators, talk-show hosts, and their ilk - sign off by saying: "Well - that's all for now. See you again Saturday." Who are they fooling? All they are going to see Saturday is the same old cameraman. Mind you, some of the really good ones almost do convince you that they are staring out through the glass at you in person and might at any moment ask you why you aren't paying attention, or beg you not to eat your crisps quite so noisily. Some of them can even pull off this illusive trick in programs recorded half a year ago. But it generally works better if they are live.

The thing I like best about live TV is when announcers deliberately let you know they are not pre-recorded - you know, by muffing a line, misreading the teleprompter, or addressing the wrong camera.

THIS is skillful stuff. The high point of this kind of let-it-be-known live TV is the cross-country or cross-world interview when the studio interviewer asks an involved and trenchant question, lasting at least two minutes, and then pauses for the interviewee's reply. Only then do we realize that the interviewee is not plugged in properly and hasn't heard a syllable. Even better is when he has heard the query and launches (with feeling) into his answer - unaware that the sound people have not connected him up and that all the multi-millions of viewers are receiving are passionately mouthed silences. That's live TV at its absolute riveting best.

But my wife takes the interface of "live" and "pre-recorded" to a degree of finesse that is beyond me. Some afternoons I catch her watching "The Bishop's Wife" or "Pretty Woman" again - some old favorite. I reckon I can interrupt because it is obviously a video and can be stopped and re-started.

"Sh-sh-sh!" she hisses. "It's live!"

"But you could watch your video of it," I suggest.

"Shhhh!! No! It's not the same."

I admit to finding such distinctions a trifle baffling. Much less puzzling for me are the differences between a movie on TV and a movie in a cinema, or the differences between a movie in a cinema and a play on stage. These differences are not simply the obvious ones of scale or ambient darkness or lack of distractions like commercial breaks. Nor are they simply the differences between tape, celluloid, and flesh-and-blood. What really signifies is the subtle difference in audience conventions.

Sometimes when these conventions become confused in a person's mind, unusual happenings can occur.

We attended a performance on stage the other day of the "Shakespeare Review" - a delightful concoction of sketches and songs all somehow Bard-connected.

Behind us sat a lady with her husband. We overheard (could hardly help overhearing) her tell the people along the row that she was "a great fan of Shakespeare," and once the entertainment began it became very clear that she was not exaggerating. She was, it seemed, also a great fan of game shows - the kind where the "live audiences" (as they are known) yell and scream advice to the participants, or cry out "YES!!!!" or "Open the box!!!" or sing along lustily with the host as he indulges the memory of his one-time fame as a 1950s crooner by interposing a nostalgic ditty.

After a while, I began to suspect she might also have a fancy for bingo.

Well, she laughed louder and sooner and higher than anyone else in the theater. She knew all the quotes, and said them right along with the performers. She anticipated jokes and punch lines - though she often got them wrong. At the end of each sketch, she cried out brightly, an affirmation difficult to put into a word, as if a goal had been scored or a prize won.

The row in front of her started to shift a little and exchange glances.

NOW, I don't know about audiences in other places, but Scottish audiences do tend to be rather well-behaved and discreet. They applaud in the right places, for instance, and at the end, too, but they rarely ovate in the standing position and would be shocked (even in the funniest moments) to think that the actors onstage might actually hear their individual laughter. They do laugh - but only collectively.

This lady was different. She was not a collective type.

Although at the time one did rather wish she would temper her enjoyment a little, now I wonder if she was not perfectly in line with all the best traditions of theater-audiences, from Elizabethan groundlings on. Perhaps she had the right idea and it was the rest of us who were being rather stuffy and proper.

But what I want to know is this: Is she as much a fan of the TV weather-forecasters as she is of Shakespeare? And if she is, can't they hear her squeals of encouragement over the airwaves?

Surely they can.

"...and clouds are moving in tonight across the southwest...."

"Yes!!! Clouds!!! Southwest!!! YES!!!!!"

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