Contending with audience members who want to be heard at the BBC Proms - Ian McMillan

I was lucky enough to be at a BBC Proms concert the other week and towards the end of each piece I began to steel myself for what I call the ‘Bravo!’ moment.

As a piece finishes there’s always a moment of exquisite silence as everyone in the hall takes their time to breathe in the beautiful live music they’ve just experienced, and silently ask themselves questions about it: how did that violinist play that tune so exquisitely?

How did the percussionist know just when to clash those cymbals together? How much must the conductor’s arms ache?

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There’s no time for these contemplations though because just as the last note fades away someone shouts ‘Bravo!’ or, to show that they’re really sophisticated and, let’s face it, posh, they truncate an already short word and shout ‘Brao!’ or something that sounds like ‘Bro!’ or even ‘Br!’

Poet Ian McMillanPoet Ian McMillan
Poet Ian McMillan

Speaking of words, there’s a word for this kind of shouting, and it’s ‘performative’. It’s as though the shouter wants everybody in the hall to know they’ve enjoyed the performance and, because the Proms are all live on BBC Radio 3, everybody listening at home as well.

These performative audience members are more widespread than you might think. If you go to the theatre to see a comedy by Shakespeare, there will always be somebody who performatively gets one of the jokes, the meaning of which has been lost in time or sometimes they pretend to get something they think is a joke but which, despite the mists of time, isn’t. So an actor will say something like ‘Why, my lord, thou hast a toad upon thy foot! Or is it a pebble?’ at which the performative audience member will laugh for such a long time that the people around them think they need oxygen.

There’s the Bravo equivalent in other musical genres, too of course. At a jazz gig, when the last chord is played someone will inject a ‘Yeah!’ into the silence, just as they’ll whoop at the end of a sea shanty in a folk club.

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They’re not really yeah-ing or whooping in appreciation of the music, of course, they’re just asking people to listen to them because they’re cleverer than anybody else in the room. They’re performing. And they love it: if it was a pantomime they’d slap their thighs before the principal boy got a chance to slap their thighs at the end of an emotive ballad. I mean the principal boy would be slapping their own thighs, of course. Oh yes I do. Oh no I don’t. Oh yes I do.

One place where the performative audience member is often to be found is at the poetry reading. Here, at the end of the final verse, you can invariably hear someone going ‘Mmmmm’ with the last few m’s trailing off into a charged silence.

The performative audience member will keep the murmur going on for so long that people will look around for an escaped be. The performative audience member will have more m’s than a jumbo bag of M&M’s.

When I read my poems out I sometimes pretend that the poem has come to end by suggesting completion with the cadence of my voice. A long Mmmmm begins from the third row; I turn the page and carry on with the poem. The mmm is stifled and unsuccessfully turned into a cough or a sneeze.

Poets: you can keep this going for page after page. Audience members: always make sure the poem has finished before you Mmm.

Or whoop. Or Yeah. Or bravo.

You can Mmm now. I’ve finished.