Decline of the critic
Tom Sutcliffe considers the appointment of a new theatre critic at The Times and what it may show about the continuing amateurisation of culture in this country
With the purchase of the television station Five by Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express, Big Brother may return to the nation’s screens. We have certainly come a long way in terms of taste and cultural aspiration since the days of Armchair Theatre on the BBC. In the 1950s and early 1960s it was assumed that plays and theatre would find a permanent thriving home on television. That was one reason so little effort was made to sustain provincial repertory ensembles – which are the norm in German theatre but virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. Today, there may be lots of drama on telly, especially series about crime or the clergy, but there are no plays (though, happily, the radio play has survived, stimulated by the limitations of a non-visual form).
Meanwhile at The Times, Benedict Nightingale has retired as chief theatre critic and been replaced by Libby Purves, who says that she enjoys going to the theatre and has tried to see what she can over the years – but who has certainly not got much to offer in the way of experience as a critic, or thinker about the theatre and actors and plays and theatrical interpretation. Does it matter that she has no professional memory, no reputation for astute or outrageous judgement, no relevant expertise?
She’s a name, and rather a good broadcaster and anchor on discussion programmes. This could even be a sign that theatre criticism is being taken more seriously by the Murdoch flagship. Not long ago television reviewing was seen as a prime columnist’s slot, where topics would be discussed that everybody was assumed to be interested in because they had all been watching the same programmes. The plethora of channels on telly means that the mass audience is only there for football, elections and nationally significant moments.
But Libby Purves will apply a well-honed broadcaster’s judgment to the ideas she encounters in plays and musicals that she feels might engage the reader. So perhaps her fame will make theatre criticism seem more important. Clearly the relevant Times editors scanned the horizon and could not see anybody they thought would bring added value to their pages who was already doing the job of theatre critic somewhere else.
This is not a new problem, either. The theatre critic of the Daily Mail Quentin Letts, for instance, does a job-share with himself as the Mail’s parliamentary sketch writer. Assessing Danton’s Death at the National he has little to say about why the 21-year-old medical student Georg Büchner chose the subject in 1835, or why we might be interested in it or whether it matters. The reader would gather that Michael Grandage’s production was superficial and some of the acting smart. Letts’s three-star verdict was ‘Lusty blade gets the chop’. The review had no burden or focus. It responded to the show in rather disengaged vein. But critics are often underwhelmed.
A few years back Toby Young, who confessed he had rarely visited a theatre and could scarcely find his way to the National, was made critic of The Spectator after the late Sheridan Morley was ousted from the post. The message from all these editorial decisions seems to be that anyone can whistle: critics are today among the least respected members of a despised profession, the fourth estate.
And newspapers are running scared they may disappear altogether. They have done little enough to bring on new talent or find ways of encouraging better and more thoughtful reporting. The Guardian in its reduced Berliner format can only generally these days allow 350 words max for most theatre and opera reviews – and it is supposed to be the cream of our cultural coverage. Tabloids are considered more convenient and digestible. Everybody is so busy with all the choice, they do not have time to read anything much in detail
Looking for talent
Britain’s got talent, they say. But apparently it does not need to be trained or experienced or paid for. The amateurisation of national culture proceeds apace. What’s wrong with having a decent radio presenter transform herself into a balanced judge of London theatre? Why not have Alan Titchmarsh as television presenter of choice, whether or not he knows anything about what he’s presenting?
David Attenborough doesn’t just think about animals. The BBC some years back gave up cultivating specialist radio stars. Now the famous TV faces do all the chatter on steam radio too. Their fame makes them easier to promote and builds bigger audiences.
In 2013 the Critics’ Circle, to which most music, theatre, film, dance and art and architecture critics can belong, will be 100 years old. Will it have anything to celebrate? ND