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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
Why do people heckle?
The Magazine answers...

Walter Wolfgang
A heckle which goes down in history
When Walter Wolfgang shouted at Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his intention wasn't to make headlines, it was to make a point about Iraq. So why do people heckle?

Some heckles are more effective than others.

It was the overreaction by security which gave Mr Wolfgang's intervention far more impact than it would have had otherwise, and the 82-year-old is still on some front pages two days later.

But will we remember it in 40 years?

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
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The broadcast of a new Bob Dylan documentary this week resurrected accounts of the famous "Judas" heckle, levelled at the singer during a gig in Manchester for "abandoning" his folk roots.

Years later, the heckler was identified as John Cordwell from Cumbria. He said: "I think I was probably being egged on. I certainly got a lot of positive encouragement as soon as I'd done it."

For some it's an act of defiance or a democratic act, for others an irritation and unwanted interruption. But hecklers started as neither.

Originally, a heckler was someone in the textile trade who combed out flax or hemp fibres. Its more common meaning began in the early 19th Century when the radical and unionised hecklers working in Dundee used to interrupt the colleague responsible for reading out the day's news.

Hence the word became associated with firing off questions aimed to tease or comb out truths that the speaker might wish to conceal or avoid.


A more bawdy version had been practised much earlier, in Elizabethan theatre, where it was very much part of the boisterous atmosphere to shout at actors. Later on, as part of variety performing, heckling was famously characterised in the Muppet Show by Statler and Waldorf.

Modern politicians are less likely to face an angry interruption than their predecessors, who frequently confronted live audiences, before the TV age.

Arthur Smith
You've got the microphone and you are the professional and if you respond well then you score heavily
Comedian Arthur Smith
Harold Wilson famously silenced a man who demanded why he supported "savages" in Rhodesia.

"My friend, we don't support savages, we just allow them to come to our meetings," Wilson replied, to great applause.

But even Wilson came unstuck during a speech in Chatham when, having sung the praises of the nation's Navy, he asked, rhetorically: "And why am I saying all this?" A voice from the back of the hall replied: "Because you are in Chatham."

Such scenes are rare nowadays, with television the medium of choice for politicians and live audiences usually handpicked. Spontaneity is the enemy of the spin-doctor.

Bob Dylan in 1965
In happier, acoustic days...
But in stand-up comedy, heckling is still very much part of the performance, says comedian Arthur Smith.

"Any comedian worth his salt ought to be able to deal with hecklers," he says. "When people start out they can't do it because they're too nervous.

"The key is to listen to what they say and don't overreact. You should be able to win. You've got the microphone and you are the professional and if you respond well then you score heavily and become ever greater."

Bouncers are sometimes seen lurking about but they should only be used in extreme circumstances, he says.

Labour has taken note.

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