Tom Sutcliffe considers reputations
When I sold advertisement space on Music & Musicians magazine from 1968 and edited it from the December 1970 issue (devoted to the Beethoven sesquicentenary), press officers, concert agents and orchestral managers were a big part of my landscape. Such was Michael Vyner of Schott & Co (Michael Tippett’s publishers on Great Marlborough Street) who took me to a kosher lunch at a place near Wardour Street. I got to be friendly with all sorts of bigwigs in the music business and felt they were friends: Peter Heyworth music critic of The Observer, William (always called Bill) Mann of the Times, Andrew Porter then of the FT – soon of the New Yorker. Among press ladies I was especially close to Katherine Wilkinson of Philips Records who later ran the press office at Covent Garden. I got her to buy the next floor flat to mine near Wimbledon Common from an Australian mathematician returning with wife and child to a university post in Canberra.
Some PRs accepted what I wrote, others like Helen Salomon of Sadler’s Wells Opera were sensitive to slights about their institution. When Helen O’Neill took over from Gillian Widdicombe as Glyndebourne press officer, she was incredibly helpful and kindly despite a certain grandeur. Shelagh Nelson at Brian McMaster’s Welsh National Opera often let me stay with her and Edwin overnight in Penarth when I was reviewing for the Guardian. I always felt really close to Maggie Sedwards at the RSC and National and then at English National Opera during the Jonas Powerhouse regime. But was it more than just professional friendship? Yes sometimes. However, Maggie’s frankness, good sense and sweetness ended when she retired.
Peter Thompson, the leading theatre PR in London working for Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber from their earliest success on, was at school with me though younger. In 1976 he got me to New York to write about A Chorus Line for The Guardian, meeting the brilliant Michael Bennett whose choreography had made the original Sondheim Follies. I owed Peter my introduction to the film director Lindsay Anderson, and after liking my Guardian interview piece (from a lunch at English’s oyster bar in Brighton) Lindsay became a close friend till he died. With Alec Guinness it was a lunch in Bath when he was playing Dean Swift. My work many times was as enjoyable as play
But meeting Nicholas Hytner in a flat opposite the Young Vic – after his first success directing The Turn of the Screw exceedingly well for Kent Opera (which I reviewed with enthusiasm) – has stuck in my mind because of a question he put to me. He asked, did I enjoy the power I wielded reviewing performances? I thought it really weird. A critic sometimes no doubt makes a difference, builds or damages a reputation. But is that “power” compared with being a prize pupil at Manchester Grammar with a famous mum on boards of the great and good and a successful lawyer dad? And Alys, Always by Lucinda Coxon, from the eponymous novel by Harriet Lane, which is the latest play at Hytner’s uncomfortable Bridge Theatre, is all about exploiting the sorts of opportunity that journalism affords in the service of PR and promotion. Alys worms her way out of the role of office brat in her first journalism job and ends up as the darling and new wife to be of a successful writer. Since the play involves a certain amount of confessional soliloquy we in the audience are in on the acts planned and accomplished by the appalling creepy Frances, who exploits a fatal accident in the country which she innocently comes across driving home to overtturn her tedious circumstances being exploited and improve herself out of almost all recognition. The play is full of clichés and deeply sick-making – but it has been welcomed for its awfulness and its predictable comedy which to my mind is almost never funny because it is not based on truth and the characters being manipulated are sheer cardboard. What interested me enough to go and see it was that it was chosen by Hytner. His judgment about Martin McDonagh’s disappointing Dickens play was surprisingly flawed but he is generally held to have been highly successful at the National Theatre where he was boss for 13 years.
ENO draws its curtailed current season to an end soon at the Coliseum. The Merry Widow was (I perfectly remember) such a delight in Colin Graham’s 1980s production (when there was a contracted company of very distinguished singers, and Emile Belcourt’s Danilo was enticingly characterised opposite the delectable Anne Howells or Eilene Hannan or Catherine Wilson as Hanna, with John Fryatt unforgettable as the Yes, Minister-style Njegus, Eric Shilling as Baron Zeta, Graham Clark as Camille, and Della Jones as Valencienne). But ENO artistic director Kramer’s choice of Max Webster to direct this latest foray was deeply disappointing – with pratfalls by Njegus substituting for real character and properly observed and truthful comedy. The book had been rewritten badly by April De Angelis (a good playwright but here in completely foreign territory, and the lyrics has been done over to little purpose by Richard Thomas who came to fame with Jerry Springer: The Opera. Sarah Tynan was this time ENO’s Hanna, opposite Nathan Gunn as Danilo, a perfectly decent but American bass-baritone. Alas this national company is simply not doing its job. Its board responsible for Kramer and other recent decisions should be sacked and the whole institution should be reconstructed to be what it was from the 1930s to the 1990s when it famously fulfilled its purpose in making English opera and opera-in-English credible with most notable the world premiere of Peter Grimes. How the mighty are fallen!