With the BBC Proms well underway, we would like to present our ultimate guide to spotting stereotypical Proms goers. The BBC Proms, especially, are renowned for attracting diverse audiences. No other concert series boasts an audience of such variety – old and young, experienced hands and first-timers, smart suits and sweaty t-shirts – all mingle together happily at the world’s greatest music festival. However, for all that variety, some concert-goers do tend to fit into readily identifiable types. Some of these are specific to the Proms, some you’ll find in any concert hall anywhere in the world. Here, in a one-off spotter’s guide, we’ve picked out 15 of our favourite types, from the can’t-miss-’ems to slightly rarer beasts. If you’re heading to the Proms, do keep an eye out for the following…
No prizes for spotting these Proms regulars – there are hundreds of them, right at the very heart of the Albert Hall. These are the enthusiastic souls who have paid their fiver to queue for hours, stand rather than sit… and enjoy the best position in the house. As a rule, you’ll see the Season Ticket holders on the left of the Arena, the Day Ticket holders on the right.
The closer to the front they are standing, meanwhile, the longer they are likely to have been queuing – for a big-hitting Prom such as a Wagner opera or Mahler Symphony, the real die-hards will have bagged their slot at the top of the South Steps as early as eight in the morning. Whether their various jollities – the shouts of ‘heave’, ‘ho’ and all that malarkey – amuse, bemuse or simply irritate largely depends on how charitable you’re feeling. Soloists, orchestras and conductors, however, view them with almost unanimous affection.
2. Charity Collectors
Unless you’re very late returning from the bar at the end of the interval, you’re also unlikely to miss this particular sub-species of Promenader. Just before the musicians make their return to the stage, a familiar chant emerges from the front left of the hall: ‘Shhhhh. Arena to audience…’
A chorus of Season Ticket holders then proceed to inform us, in immaculately observed unison, how much they and their bucket-wielding friends have been raising for charity over the season. After several hearings, the message – or, more to the point, its means of delivery – does admittedly lose a little of its initial charm. But don’t be churlish, and do give generously. It is, after all, for a very good cause.
The Proms are rightly famous for welcoming first-time concert-goers, fresh-faced students, occasional classical dabblers and multi-national visitors looking for their cultural fix while in London. But let’s hear it, too, for the die-hard enthusiasts. Unassuming, often alone, there they are at each and every concert, usually in pretty much the same spot.
With impressively unbreakable powers of concentration, they lap up every single note; any concert missed, for whatever cause, is a serious reason for regret. No concert hall should be without them.
No, not the chap with the smart jacket and baton up on stage. That’s the real conductor. We’re talking about the various self-appointed maestros in the seats (or Arena) here. Take a look around the hall during the more animated moments of, say, Beethoven’s Seventh or Mahler’s Sixth symphonies and you’d be surprised how many there are.
Some restrain themselves to a the occasional hand flicker; others go for the full-blown, arm-waving, orchestra-directing Leonard Bernstein. There are even those that indulge in a little humming along with the music. This is less endearing.
In this instance, we do mean the person on stage. Or, rather the person who has been on stage. Is there any more heart-warming sight than that of the player who dazzled us with his or her concerto skills in the first half of a concert now taking a seat in the audience at the beginning of the second – usually after a quick change of clothes – ready to support and appreciate their fellow performers? Relatively rare, but great when it happens.
The polar opposites of the Conductors (No. 4) are those concert-goers who lull themselves into such a state of relaxation that the eyelids start to droop, the posture slumps… and they are soon happily in the Land of Nod. Such slumbers can last whole movements, even symphonies, but chances are that there will at some point be a loud crash on the timps or cymbals to stir them from their dreams.
Talking of which, if you do spot a dozing concert-goer and you know such a moment is coming, do keep watching – that sudden lurch upright in their seat is one of life’s more amusing spectacles. Midway through the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is always a happy hunting ground for this…
Of course, catching a few zzzzzs is not an option available to the music critic, who has to be alert to each and every nuance in the performance. Even as a Handel opera ambles into its third hour on a warm, drowsy Sunday afternoon, these sharp-eared hawks of the concert hall have to remain wide awake, pen eagerly in hand. Well, that’s the theory at least.
Once the realm of the broadsheets alone, the rows of critics’ seats are today also filled by all manner of self-styled internet bloggers and have-a-go hacks who, while going unpaid for their efforts, have at least worked out that submitting a few words online is a fine way to secure some of the best tickets available. Canny fellows.
To these tortured types, everyone and everything – coughing, shifting in one’s seat, reading one’s programme, clapping in the wrong place, enthusiasm in general, breathing – serves as a distraction from the performance, an irritant to be met with an accusing, acerbic glare.
Ironically, though, by making so manifest their feelings of disgust at every little micro-movement, the Scowlers themselves then become a disturbance to others around them. Truth be told, sharing their listening space with 5,500 others probably isn’t their ideal environment…
9. Mobile phoners
That said, when it comes to mobile phones, the Scowlers do have a point. By and large, most concert-goers do at least remember to put their mobiles on silent these days. Hurrah. But that, however, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve turned the blighters off. As obsessive texting, filming, Tweeting and Facebooking increasingly become a part of our daily lives, will we soon start to see Prommers looking for a quick chance to grab a snap of themselves gurning merrily in front of the cello section mid-symphony? Hmmm. Much as though one wants concerts to feel as relaxed as possible, there are limits…
All too easily derided as eccentric boffins as they avidly follow the performance note-by-note in front of them, the Score-readers are in fact onto something. No matter how well you might think you know a work by ear, you’d be surprised just how many little moments of brilliance on the part of both composers and performers become apparent when reading the music at the same time. Don’t believe us? Do try it… though promise not to ‘tut’ every time you spot a wrong note, fluffed entry or iffy tempo decision.
There are two types of children who go to concerts. Actually, correct that. There are two types of parents who take children to concerts: a) those who have worked out that kids largely respond well to events that are specifically aimed at them, or at least have some element of orchestral colour or percussive bish, bash and bosh to spark their youthful imagination; and b) those who reckon the filigree delights of a lengthy 18th-century French opera are as good a place for their brood to start as any.
You’ll see the former type leaving the hall accompanied by a family buzzing with excitement and enthusiasm and asking if they can come again soon. The latter’s children, meanwhile, are almost certainly now refusing to speak to their parents, quite possibly forever.
Aah. The Late Night Proms, when the early evening crowds have headed home and the roominess of the Royal Albert Hall is revealed. This is when, down in the Arena and way up in the Gallery, Prommers find enough space to spread themselves out, lie back, close their eyes and let the glorious music fill their ears. Recliners are not, incidentally, to be confused with Sleepers (No. 6).
By their very nature these types come in pairs. Yes, we’re delighted they’re in love. And yes, we appreciate that, having been at separate places of work, they haven’t seen each other for a whole, full day. But are the bangs and crashes of Vaughan Williams’s bellicose Fourth Symphony really the time and place for getting all touchy-feely? We don’t want to even start imagining what they might get up to during, say, Tristan und Isolde or Bantock’s Sapphic Poem.
We all know the feeling. Having entered the hall with gloriously clear airwaves, the moment the conductor lifts his baton, you feel that devilish little tickle creeping insidiously into the back of your throat. And as the music gets quieter, it makes its presence increasingly felt.
What to do? Wait in agony for a crescendo, or end one’s misery with a hearty cough, risking the wrath of a potential Scowler (No. 8)? Research in Germany has recently revealed that people inside a concert hall cough at over twice the frequency than they do outside it. We can well believe it.
Decked in flags, merrily singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and laughing uproariously at even the lamest joke in the conductor’s speech, the Last Night revellers are how many like to imagine the typical Proms audience. Which, in a way, they are, as those who get to attend the final festivities are there as a result of their loyalty over the season – however, this is the only one of the 88 concerts at which you’ll see the posh frocks and DJs. And no, when all is done and dusted, they are not deflated, folded up and put in a large Albert Hall cupboard labelled ‘Audience’. Instead they return to normal, everyday life… until the Proms fun begins again ten months later.
Illustration: David Lyttleton
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine