A Consumer's Guide to Critics
Reviewing the same play twice, the late Mrs Dorothy Parker used to say, was like being sick on an empty stomach. It is a dictum of wider scope than she narrowly gave it. Waspe, for example, experiences something of the same feeling in embarking for the second year on a review of the reviewers themselves. He bows, nevertheless, to popular dentand.
I had it first in mind to concentrate my attention on the year's newcomers to the craft — or, at least, newcomers to the Main papers — but there have been, in truth, so few of these that I am obliged to the conclusion that editors everywhere believe their review pages to have achieved a condition of unimprovable perfection. Evidently they are less jaded than I, for I discover very little reviewing, save in our own pages, that combines knowledgeability with readability. But the editors may be right, anyway, for such newcomers as there are have scarcely distinguished themselves. I shall deal with them as I get to their respective categories, offering also progress reports on some of those reviewed a year ago, and catching up with a few I then omitted. As a hooker for desultory readers, I can promise to reveal, among incidental trivia, which two critics (a husband and wife) wear each other's Jewellery . . . who is the new Miss Critic ' . . . who was suspected of actually Penning this little guide last year... which critic invariably turns up with a different teenage girl on his arm ... and a few larkishly barbed nicknames. The report Will not be entirely destructive: the reader Will naturally wish to know who, among all these appraisers, is most likely to deserve his attention. But I do not, of course, flinch from the principle that if you can't say something good about somebody, You should say it anyway: everyone else Will enjoy it.
Brendan Behan (who may not have been the first to think of the comparison) described the drama critics as eunuchs — In the sense that they know how it's done, they see it done every night, but they can't du it themselves. Stung by this half-truth, a: goodly proportion of the present practitioners are obsessed with the idea of
proving themselves exceptions. Rumour has it that unproduced scripts lie at this moment in the desk drawers of Herbert Kretzmer of the Daily Express (he has had a musical done), Milton Shuirnan of the Evening Standard (he once made it with one on television) and Jeremy Kingston of Punch (who actually got one done in the theatre in the 'fifties). I hope the rumours are well founded and that these men see their efforts rewarded, for their reviewing is not what it was.
Shulman, having run out of vendetta material among the television companies, has given up writing on that subject and is now spraying critical buckshot over a wider area, but less provocatively than of old. Writing on the theatre, he is as good a judge as any of commercial prospects, but is considerably less pithy these days — and if you take the pith out of Shulman, what have you got? I am glad to say, though, that advancing years and increasing bulk have had relatively little effect on his speed from his seat to the exit doors.
Kretzmer's snap-crackle-and-pop judgements are only at home in reviews of the lighter theatre; plays with elements of profundity find him floundering for both meanings and opinions. Desperately
anxious not to seem too old for the job, he is a leaf in the wind of trendiness. Pessimistically fearful that the commercial theatre will disappear and leave him paddle-less up the well-known creek, he has taken to exploring, the pub-and-club fringe and startling Express readers by reviewing these' quaint entertainments.
Kingston has also fallen for the fringe and goes on about it at tedious length. This is not, as the saying is, good enough for Punch; although, come to think of it, very little of Punch is. Perhaps if some nice West End management would produce one of his plays, Kingston's balance would be restored. Meanwhile, he is almost as fond of the Open Space as the Times's Irving Wardle, who is still waiting for its erratic proprietor, Charles Marowitz, to produce one of his plays — which was actually on the schedule for this autumn but has not yet come to pass.
I do hope Marowitz hasn't been stringing poor Wardle along, just to keep him coming — day and night — to the Tottenham Court Road cellar. Because • Wardle would go in any case, churning out his daily ream of literate but dreary prose about minority enterprises throughout the kingdom. No one so consistently writes such long reviews, except possibly B. A. Young, of t'ne Financial Times, who is also the paper's arts editor (a good one) and can pick his shots.
I suspect Wardle's reviews have so small a readership as to be almost confidential; but the earnest Irving is a nervously nice little chap, as acute in his assessments of important work as he is wayward about the pretentiously unimportant.
Frank Marcus of the Sunday Telegraph is the one practising drama critic who can legitimately call himself a dramatist — although it may be that The Killing of Sister George has earned him an unduly inflated reputation in that respect. His entry this year, Notes on a Love Affair, required all the reserves of charity that his kindly colleagues could muster, and some of them have been urging him as tactfully as they can to confine himself in future to the one-act and virtually one-character pieces he is best at. I'll say one thing for Marcus, he doesn't allow the beam in his own eye to inhibit his picking on the mote in his brother dramatists' when he's wearing his critical hat. But it may be simply that he lacks the humour to appreciate the amusing vulnerability of his situation.
His colleague at the Daily Telegraph, John Barber, plods along gravely, a bit happier with life since first-night curtain times have become earlier. One of his notices this year had a witty line (he described Svetlana Beriosova as looking like a nun and acting like a novice), which stood out like the proverbial good deed in a naughty world. He hates to miss anything (or else hates to see his deputy, Eric Shorter, covering anything he can get to himself), and if two openings clash he trots along to a preview of one of them even if it's in some out-of-the-way fringe establishment. Barber writes too much (0 Monday ' think ' piece is required of him as well as his first-night reviews) to be anything but humdrum. Others in that boat are Felix Barker of the Evening News, who covers films as well as plays and puts together the sort of clichés that look well on posters (for which it would be uncharitable to think they were designed), and Michael Billing' ton, who is such a compulsive writer that he moved over from the deputy slot at the Times on the promise of more lavish exposure in the Guardian — at least, it could hardly have been for the money, which had already been turned down bY the Daily Mail's Peter Lewis and the New Statesman's Benedict Nightingale. The latter has all the space he wants (and rather more than he needs) and might have found even the Guardian a bit sticky about his liberality with four-letter words. Lewis has since transferred to what is laughingly called the literary editorship of the Mail, relinquishing the drama seat to Jack Tinker, whose notices read exactly as though they were written by someone called Jack Tinker.
Meanwhile at the Guardian, Billington is knocking himself out to justify his minuscule remuneration, filing ' if ' and ' but ' notices, discoursing on theories about acting (which he has just put also into a book) and being heartily resented by all the paper's deputy reviewers, from whose mouths he has taken the bread.
Let me here, by the way, correct a popular misconception about daily reviewers, whom you doubtless believe would appreciate more time to formulate their opinions and organise their prose. Not a bit of it. They're a smugly selfsatisfied lot, and none' of them wants to change the system. Some of them may be influenced by the thought that reviews written twenty-four hours after a firstnight would lose news value' and lose their place in the paper.
In this they differ sharply from the Observer's Robert Brustein, who is rarely in any hurry to publish his opinions and, in the case of plays in the commercial West End playhouses, would rather not bother at all. This could, of course, be imposed by the prevailing atmosphere at the paper, where the view of the arts is increasingly aimed at a small, eccentric coterie of readers (by God, perhaps they're right), although this purpose might have been more easily and better served by the engagement of some young sprig from Time Out — or even the Guardian's thwarted second-string Nicholas de Jongh —rather than by hauling Brustein over from Yale. The visiting professor goes painfully out of his way to let us knovi that he's been to England before, but the glib superficiality of his local knowledge is almost as tiresome . as his obsessive concern with social consciousness, and perhaps he's best when he just has us in for a tutorial on the American theatre.
The doyen, Harold Hobson, celebrating his twenty-fifth year with the SundaY Times (he is one of the authors of that newspaper's self-congratulatory biogra' phy), has been known to have divine flashes of insight about plays that are denied to most of his colleagues, but this May just be the law of averages coming to the rescue of one who is persistently Perverse. I have lost track of what he gets Up to in his dispatches to the Christian Science Monitor, but it may be best to regard his ST pieces as a light diversion, finding what simple amusement we can in the fact that, at a time of life when interest in sex might be expected to be residual at best, he is a sucker for erotica. However, Robson has recently been attacked by Arnold Wesker and is about to be attacked by Martin Esslin (in the next Theatre Quarterly), so he can't be all bad.
Music and Dance
lump these departments willy-nilly together. Except for the Guardian, where
the indestructible Philip Hope-Wallace, of elephantine memory, deals with most of
both opera and ballet, the papers keep them severely apart — thus occasioning Unseemly disputes over the tickets when the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera get together on a single production, or when some orchestral work is offered with choreographic trimmings. (The dispute, as often as not, is over the privilege of staying away.) But if there were no other reason for lumping them together the comely Jan Murray would provide one.
Miss Murray is the •' Music and Dance ' correspondent of Time Out and is a spectacular blonde, Juno-esque of feature
as of form. Even those few critics in this area who are pervious (the mot juste, I
think) to feminine charms have scarcely dared approach her, so icy is her beauty: they prefer to drool silently over their Debussy. So none knows as yet how liberated she may be (Waspe Award for Exceptional Bravery in the service of the craft for he who risks a straight left from this amazon and finds out by next year).
Thus far I can note only that she has neatly snatched the golden crown of 'Miss Critic' from the head of Gillian Widdi
eambe (Widdicombe Fair to some, Widdicombe Foul to others) who, follow
ing the unfortunate publicity attending her friendship with maestro Previn, has somewhat lain low, engaging herself on the official biography of William Walton. She spreads herself around rather less, restricting her work otherwise to the Financial Times (where, since the departure to New York of Andrew Porter, she has more to do) and is generally more subdued, and hasn't been in Pseuds' Corner for months.
I fear she has lost her other title, too — that of being Most-Likely-to-Succeed Almost-Anyone — to Stephen Walsh, who crops up occasionally in the Times and the Financial Times but is better known as O. 2 at the Observer to Peter Heyworth ( Rita' to his enemies and a writer of
surpassing dullness). If some of the amiable facetiousness of Walsh's interval conversation turned up in his writing, the
World would be a brighter place; but his sober, often incomprehensible notices Obviously destine him to succeed to one of
the heavier Sundays — if, for instance, Desmond Shawe-Taylor should fail to rise again. The absence from the FT of the aforementioned Porter (unlikely to return, I gather, being booked for the academic world and a definitive Verdi study), leaves Clement Crisp alone in another of the paper's hot seats, as ballet critic. (The dual connection of Lord Drogheda with the FT 2nd the Royal Opera House tends to make the paper's critics feel that life could be less complicated.) But Crisp's urbanity is equal to all occasions, as also is his wit. It is he who is credited with the anagrammatic epithet for the Daily Telegraph's Fernau Hall, to wit: 'Half unreal,' which can be taken as apt in relation to both the man and his reviews, which his colleages regard as bizarre, to say the least. They also wish he would chat less incessantly, less loudly and less foolishly during performances. Hall is reputedly expert in the special field of Indian dance. However, it was not this, but rather the fact that he isn't a homosexual that is said to have been decisive in getting him the appointment at the Telegraph, where they're fussy about such things.
The second ballet string there, modestly sheltering behind the initials ' K.S.W.' is an ex-ballerina named Kathleen Sorley Walker, a knowledgeable girl, less demure than she appears. She has been dubbed 'La Reine de la Danse ' by Oleg Kerensky, who doubtless had excellent reasons for putting it in French.
Kerensky, ballet critic of the New Statesman (though I suspect that what he knows about ballet could be written on the back of an old pair of tights, and indeed probably often is), is far and away the best arts gossip in London. His tales being seldom founded on fact, imagination of such fertility deserves public recognition. It is a favourite sport among his circle to feed him an unlikely rumour, and see how long it takes to get back and with what embellishments.
Also deserving recognition — for the services they provide for fellow critics who care to consult them — are Ian Woodward (a freelance wino is found everywhere from the Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor to the women's magazines) and John Percival of the Times. Woodward has an elaborate and methodical press-cuttings file unmatched anywhere in the trade, except possibly by Percival's memory which is encyclopaedic and the more remarkable in that ballet criticism occupies only part of his time (when not at the Times he runs a department for the GLC).
People who think they know William Mann, the Times's music critic, call him
' Bill '; to those who really do know him he is ' Bo '; and some would like to spell it
' Beau' — though as he looks more like the Gipsy Baron (whoops, it nearly came out as tipsy) every day, that might not be appropriate. He is dozing increasingly at concerts, too, and perhaps should record the fact in his notices since it is as much a reflection on performances as on the length of the interval or the nearness of the bar. Should he demur, the watchful Waspe may start keeping a tally of the number of times last movements are punctuated by Bo's contentedly deep breathing.
His Times colleague, Stanley Sadie, is
often referred to as Dr Sadie,' in sardonic envy of his academic qualifications. (Could he, perchance, be really a doctor of medicine?) The good doctor's period, it is believed, is April 1 to June 30 (inclusive) 1764, and any review of a work written between those dates cannot be less than authoritative; his views on anything else tend to the erratic, but at present he is busy with the new ' Grove ' so we may hear less of him.
The Times's assistant editor, John Higgins, is also a music man, but nowadays generally restricts his reviewing activities to the plummier assignments overseas. When people he knows are involved in a home performance, however, Higgins loyally writes it up. His style is distinguished by a quite remarkable pomposity, which makes it extraordinary that anyone should have thought — as many uncharitably did — that he was responsible for last year's edition of this guide. Perhaps it was supposed that his unkindly reaction to the affair was a wilful red herring.
The interminable ramblings of the venerable Shawe-Taylor in the Sunday Times have a harmful side-effect in that they inevitably restrict the space accorded to Felix Aprahamian. My thought is that the latter's somewhat pert style deserves more advantageous display; though editors do tell me that he is hot on fees. Aprahamian has an enviable knowledge of twentieth-century French music. Neatly bearded, and with formidable embonpoint, he gives a touch of exoticism to the critical herd. The man . among them, however, who most impressively combines wit, knowledge, an infectious enthusiasm and a broad view of the place of music in western civilisation is Hans Keller of the Listener.
On the other hand, the Waspe Golden Boob of the Year award goes to Noel Goodwin of the Daily Express for (a) sleeping not merely through most of a concert but through the whole of the interval as well, and (b) criticising the designer of The Merry Widow for having "up-dated the period to the turn of the century." (The Widow was written in 1905.) Goodwin only redeems himself through his wife, an ex-Bluebell dancer, who is the most delectable appendage of the critical corps at any first night — though there is stiff competition from the languid ephebes toted about by some of his colleagues who should know better (and I hope have).
Let me not give the impression, though, that there are no other mixed doubles even at ballet premieres. There is, f or example, that agreeable couple, Edward Thorpe of the Listener,and his wife Gillian Freeman, who sometimes writes on dance for Spare Rib; they are unlikely to go unnoticed in their Edwardian ruffles, velvet cat-suits or whatever, not to mention their six diamantè brooches. I feel sure they are aware that the close inspection they are accorded by their colleagues is prompted by much guessing, and even wagering, about which of them will be wearing which of the brooches.
I must instance, too, the case of the Dancing Times writer, G. B. Wilson, who seems to have the companionship of a different teenage girl at every first night. Clearly they are not all his nieces, and there was much interested conjecture as to the secret of his paternal appeal until it was disappointingly discovered that Wilson has so many young ladies on call because he arranges the placing of graduate dancers from such sources as the Royal Ballet School with companies abroad.
I am impelled reluctantly to find space to consider this basement art, if only to repair an omission of last year which was irritably regarded by Peter Black. The omission was Peter Black of the Daily Mail, who is thought by many to have been invented by John Logie Baird, but it should not necessarily be assumed that the two of them passed on together.
Though his perspicacity and stature have dwindled with the page area of his newspaper, it is fair to say that Black was for long unrivalled at the game, and, as he moves now into incredibly old age, it is not to be held against him that Philip Purser (now of the Sunday Telegraph) studied the craft at his knee.
While we are on the subject, let us bow low to Nancy Banks Smith of the Guardian, wishing her a long and active writing life, not only because her irrepressible geniality would be sadly missed, but because she would almost inevitably be succeeded at the Guardian by Peter Firldlek, who writes at twice the length and half the depth.
Of the two Sunday newcomers, it can be said that Peter Lennon "shows promise" at the Sunday Times, while dive James, who seemed quite as promising an appointment, has lost the natural vivacity of his writing style in trying too hard to live down to the Observer's present view of life. (The rumour that James is being groomed for the paper's drama slot, has brought a few prayer mats out in theatreland.) Chris Dunkley (for Chris's sake, let's get that name right) is evidently never going to get rid of the idea that anyone writing on the arts page of the Times should be writing about an 'art form,' an idea that happily does not afflict Barry Norman, who remains runner-up to Miss Banks Smith in a field in which the competition cannot be said to be keen.
Sean Day-Lewis, television critic of the Daily Telegraph, is enviably well-informed (a carry-over from his old job as the paper's arts reporter) and is better at news than criticism. Mercurially adaptable, he also writes for the Socialist Commentary.
There is almost as little to be said about art criticism as there is to be said for it. I try to be tolerant, indeed I even try to distinguish one art critic from another, but my efforts last year to help them improve themselves have been futile. They have done no better this year, and in their uncertainty as to what precisely are their terms of reference they have done far worse.
Their weak wits and soft spines were cruelly exposed in the summer by the Hayward Gallery, with an exhibition jokingly dubbed The New Art. All the art reviewers dutifully turned up to see it, and dutifully absorbed all the catalogue notes, and dutifully wrote about it — some favourably, some unfavourably, but all in woolly bewilderment. Their readiness to accept that, because this exhibition was held in a place commonly devoted to art, and because it was called art, and because they, as art critics, had been invited to write about it, then ipso facto it was art, was comedy and tragedy rolled alarmingly into one, (Comlare the attitude cf sports writers: professional wrestling may be staged in a recognised sporting arena, and its promoters and even television may bill it as a sporting occasion, but that does not mean that the sports writers will write about it.) Since they are unable to define their subject, I am pleased in a negative waY that they rarely, have the effrontery to criticise — unless, of course, the artist is fully established and beyond being affected by their paragraphs, at which point the occasional slap on the wrist might be risked by such daring reviewers as Richard Cork and will be hailed as ' outspoken ' art criticism.
Cork, incidentally, has moved several places up my list. I have almost no faith in his judgement, but the Evening Standard gives him a full page to play with every week and he uses it in relatively sprightly fashion to advance the myth that the paper has an alertly art-loving readership. This may eventually persuade the readers that they are alertly art-loving, and they will go out and look at some art and come to know that the waffle fed to them by art critics is just to wrap *up their fish and chips (and if the fish has been fried in the cause of ' art ' at the Hayward, so much the better).
Caroline Tisdall of the Guardian has moved a stage closer to perfecting the knack of turning a potentially interesting art subject into a yawn. Hands up anyone who has ever finished reading one of her longer articles? Yes, I thought sn. Fortunately, she is as dishy as she was last year.
There have been no changes in the line' up on which to remark. I note only that Marina Vaizey of the Financial Times and Max Wykes-Joyce of the International Herald-Tribune, neither of whom I mentioned last year, are the most conscientious in 'doing the rounds '; and that Nigel Gosling of the Observer seems to have displaced Guy Brett of the Times as the Pseuds' Corner champion — but he could be succeeded quite easily by almost any of the others, with the possible exception of Michael Shepherd of the Sunday Telegraph, who is protected MO pomposity by an in-built whimsicality.
The changes here have been few, too, involving only the recent departure fronl, the Times of the emotional John Russel' Taylor, and the arrival at Punch of the
ubiquitous Benny Green. Both changes are for the considerably better.
Green is the second former jazzman to take up film reviewing, the other, of course, being George ' Nuts ' Melly of the Observer, the cabaret turn of the press showings for which he turns up in leather jacket and pork-pie hat, to obscure the screen with rich puffs of cigar smoke. When Melly gets a rise out of a film, he writes about the erotic experience with depressing determination: the nuts are not as well oiled as they used to be, and the middle-aged, middle-of-the-road reviews that result, given the milieu, offend only within quite tolerable limits. The films that turn Melly on are unlikely to be written about at all by Green, who probably won't have seen them: marvelling at the dedication of his fellows, he nevertheless relies upon a sixth sense of his own to prevent him from wasting his time on the garbage that fills up most film columns.
His approach is diametrically opposite to that of, say, the Evening Standard's Alexander Walker, with his mixture of painful seriousness and squawky belligerence about the ethics of censorship. He sees and reviews nearly every new film Within range, and Waspe hopes that his recent eye infection is not occupationally attributable and will not cut short his career. Profiles, 'appropriately enough, are a field he has turned to in the paper — there was one, recently, of a young art dealer of his acquaintance — but this is doubtless a passing fancy.
The senior ladies, Dilys Powell at the Sunday Times and Margaret Hinxman at the Sunday Telegraph, indefatigably soldier on; and it only remains to compliment, as the worthiest reviewers available outside our own pages, David Robinson of the Financial Times, who grinds no axes but retains a nice cutting edge, and the former racing correspondent, Derek Malcalm of Cosmopolitan and the Guardian, who studied cinema verite in the photo-finish camera, and 'whose nomination as ' Cr:tic of the Year' lent that award a sensible distinction it has rarely possessed in the past.