No sacred cows

How to cope with unsold tickets and empty halls: my advice to Owen Jones

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

My heart goes out to Owen Jones. The left-wing journalist is one of the headliners at a Labour party fund-raiser scheduled for next Saturday and, at the time of writing, 85 per cent of tickets remain unsold. It is particularly embarrassing for Jones, given that Rod Liddle managed to sell out the London Palladium last month.

As someone who has struggled to attract audiences to these sorts of things in the past, I have a few tips for Owen. First of all, don’t give tickets away, because those who have already bought them will ask for their money back. Unfortunately, that horse has already bolted in Owen’s case. Labour has sent thousands of emails to party members offering them free tickets, as well as free coach travel there and back, which hasn’t gone down well with those who have shelled out £35. One Twitter account, describing itself as ‘Socialist Workers in Europe’, has already demanded a refund. As the Tory councillor Stephen Canning quipped, ‘Glad to be in agreement with Socialist Workers that it’s just terrible when some people get things for free that other people had to work hard for.’

Second, try to avoid selling discounted tickets. Back in 2003, I appeared in a one-man show in the West End and when the theatre was struggling to fill the auditorium, it used to offer unsold tickets to the half-price booth in Leicester Square. Lots of West End theatres do this, but at £12.50 the tickets to my show were the cheapest of the lot, so we managed to sell quite a few. Trouble is, that would mean half the seats were occupied by elderly Japanese tourists. They sat there, stony-faced, as I regaled the audience with ‘gags’ about my failure to take Manhattan in the mid-1990s. The funny thing is, many of them complained afterwards that the 50-minute show was too short — which reminded me of the old joke about school food, namely that it’s completely inedible and there’s never enough of it. I daresay Owen won’t attract any complaints along those lines.

Third, it’s not a good idea to fill the seats an hour beforehand by herding strangers into the auditorium. I remember sitting with my American publisher in the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and complaining that the two dozen punters who had turned up to hear me read from my latest book looked like homeless people. ‘They are homeless people,’ he whispered. ‘I went down to the local shelter and promised a free cup of soup to anyone who bothered to turn up.’ I have no idea whether he was joking, but they looked even less impressed than the Japanese pensioners.

Fourth, if you discover that some of the people in the audience are there to hear someone else because of a booking snafu, make sure you speak first. That happened to me at the Hay Festival in 2008. I walked on stage to a full house, which was a pleasant surprise, only to be told that I’d been double-booked with a bearded academic who had written a book called A Hermeneutics of Film. I politely agreed to let him go first on the condition he limit himself to half the allotted time. Needless to say, he droned on for nearly an hour, by which time three-quarters of the audience had left.

Fifth, don’t assume the handful of people who have turned up are die-hard fans of yours. Some of them may be journalists who are only there to make fun of you — a particular danger in Owen’s case, I fear. I made the mistake of assuming I was addressing a civilian at a film festival when I was asked by a spotty youth how I felt about Simon Pegg playing me in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. ‘Not great, to be honest,’ I said. ‘I would have preferred Brad Pitt.’

It was a joke, obviously, but the questioner turned out to be a hack from the Independent who the next day wrote it up as a diary story. To this day, I can still remember the opening line: ‘Toby Young told an audience at the Cannes Film Festival last night that he was disappointed to be played by Britain’s no. 1 box office star and would have preferred Brad Pitt.’ Above this was a picture of Brad in all his pulchritudinous glory next to one of me looking like a cross between Winston Churchill and a newborn baby.

Good luck, Owen. Playing to an empty house can be a soul–destroying experience, but that’s capitalism for you.

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