The other night, at the theatre, I was amazed by how freely people in the audience were coughing. At one point, the coughs became so frequent that it was like hearing bull-frogs calling to one another at night from different parts of the swamp. I actually started to count the coughs, which was counter-productive because when I got above twenty I realised I had momentarily lost track of what was happening on stage.
I have a theory about coughing in the concert hall or theatre, which is that people have got so used to watching things on TV that they are unfamiliar with the experience of having live musicians or actors in front of them. My theory is they don’t fully realise that the people on stage will hear them and be distracted.
However, today Bob called me to come and listen to a recording which seemed to explode my theory. Made in 1927, it was a recording of a live performance in the Royal Albert Hall conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. A great climax had just passed over, and in the quiet passage that followed, you could hear people coughing uninhibitedly. Over a quiet melody, coughs barked out from near and far, from the stalls and the galleries. This of course was well before the era of television.
Just as you’ve told yourself that coughing is unavoidable in the season of colds and flu, you come across an audience which seems to be able to exert mind over matter. This week I went twice to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear the wonderful Takacs Quartet play Beethoven, on days when the press was full of concern about rising numbers of flu cases. There must have been over a thousand people in the QEH audience on each occasion, and there was scarcely a single cough the whole evening.