Occasional as a Heckler's Heckler
Oh go on then – heckle!
I love a good debate. Mrs Occasional generally can’t stand them. We have to agree to differ.
For me, the quickness of repartee and the swift put-down from either side makes for stimulating entertainment, even if both sides ultimately remain convinced of their original positions.
When I lived in London I used to visit what was called Speakers Corner. This was just by Marble Arch, where criminals had been executed a few hundred years before. Here, people of all persuasions – generally extreme – could stand on a soap box (literally) and sound forth. At the time, only talk of outright treason was banned. The crowds would “debate” with the speakers. There were political views from extreme right and left, wild-eyed evangelists predicting dire destinies for the boisterous crowd, an old guy tattooed from head to foot who claimed to have been Al Capone’s driver, and a sallow faced man with bad teeth who was adamant that the entire world’s sexual depravity was caused through eating too many beans. For a teenager, this was all good free entertainment.
It couldn’t really be called debate by any stretch of the imagination, but one of our favorites was the yodelling woman. She was short, rotund, of indeterminate age, and she just went from audience to audience and – well – yodelled. Nothing could be guaranteed to put an evangelist off his text quicker than the yodelling woman. Having reduced one to a gibbering wreck threatening hell and damnation, she would move on – and the bulk of the crowd with her – to see what the fate of the United Workers Liberation speaker would be. It would be similar.
You'd better not Say That Again!
Sometimes though, it is the quick witted put-down that stays in the mind. I remember at a folk festival listening to an earnest singer-songwriter from a remote Canadian fishing village. After one intense ditty on the human condition, he explained how, where he came from, there were only two choices – to become a musician or a fisherman... A drunken voice called out from the back – “So which did you choose?” I think “nonplussed” is the best word to describe the reaction.
Sometimes it works the other way, when a heckler is upstaged by the response. Back in the late 1960s when Britain was struggling with Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence for what was then called Rhodesia, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was explaining at a televised meeting what they were trying to do for the black majority. An angry voice cried out from the crowd “All you’re interested in is a load of ***** savages!” Quick as a flash, Wilson shot back on primetime TV – “Yes, and we even allow them into our meetings”. You could almost hear the sound of horrible great skid marks as the heckler was silenced.
Today, we are probably all conditioned to live debate on TV from chat shows, including the bear-baiting kind associated with USA’s Jerry Springer or UK’s Jeremy Kyle. Back in the 60s the style was pioneered in Britain by a very young David Frost. They would get someone controversial into the studio for an interview, and fill the audience with their opponents. The armchair audience would settle back in comfort at home to watch the carnage. Only sometimes there were surprises.
Wafting back through the decades was a classic example featuring Sir Oswald Moseley. Moseley was a controversial figure in British history; he led the British Fascist party in the 1930s, his followers wore black-shirts, and his oratorical style owed a great deal to Hitler and Mussolini, as did his politics. He was locked up by the British authorities for the duration of the war. But here he was in the 1960s, a totally unrepentant old man who was still embroiled in far right politics. So the David Frost program loaded the audience with what could only be described as a busload of ardent Zionists. Historically, they had every good reason to hate everything Sir Oswald stood for. It should have been a TV massacre, what with Frost at his young incisive best. Only, for this viewer, it didn’t turn out that way.
Moseley dodged and parried with skill, and kept his cool, while the audience got increasingly heated, and Frost made the mistake for the era of not even attempting to appear fair and even-handed as interlocutor and moderator. One memorable moment – someone in the audience had been shrieking abuse at Moseley, and Frost’s attempts to silence them had fallen on deaf ears. Moseley turned full face to the camera. “You asked me why we had the black-shirts in the 1930s” he said. He gave a withering smile full camera and pointed a pudgy finger straight into it – “it was to throw people like you out of our meetings!” There was a shriek of anguish and rage, and the program ended with Moseley sitting Buddha like and serene while chaos continued around him. I hold no truck with Moseley’s views, but from a debating point of view, on live TV, he knew how to use the media – even better than Frost did at the time in my estimation.
Perhaps the debate I enjoyed most of all was a religious one. A member of the religious group I support was once invited to a live TV debate to represent their views before an audience made up entirely of theologians. The location was at a theological college in a university city. The program was fittingly called “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” He was to explain his beliefs, and then defend himself from the combined efforts of the leading lights of the established Church.
The “lions” started off quite condescending and dismissive, but as “Daniel” got them down to specifics, it got rather interesting. He invited his audience to turn up and read a verse in Matthew 24 with him. There was a rustle of embarrassment – none of the theologians making up the audience had actually brought a Bible with them. So Daniel, laboring the point quite effectively, produced a stack of Bibles and helpfully offered to hand them out to the audience. Their condescending manner evaporated into something a lot testier as the debate progressed – Daniel reading verse after verse direct and his audience, wrong-footed, trying to quote from memory. It ended with the final comment Daniel was allowed (quoting from memory) – after extolling how his own faith had given him a purpose, and strengthened his relationship with God, he turned on his audience – “your belief has so weakened your faith that not one of you even bothered to bring a Bible with you!” There was howl of annoyance from the assembled worthies, and the program faded out to Daniel plying them with question after question machine-gun fashion, and refusing to let them escape when they didn’t answer to his satisfaction. Yes, a memorable program.
On a personal note, about ten years after that program, I had the experience of visiting the same theological college with a colleague to represent the same religious views in another debate. This time it was with their third year students, moderated by a couple of teachers, and no, it was not recorded. This time they had Bibles. I concentrated on history – my subject even then – and we debated the finer points of translation for key proof texts from either side. It was amicable, there was tea and cakes afterwards, and it was moderated extremely fairly by a college official. I am sure we all went away as fixed in our positions as we had been before we started. And no – there were no memorable put-downs on this occasion.
I really did behave myself for once.