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Critical lightning strikes at the Thunderer…..

Later this morning my friend and long-time colleague Benedict Nightingale will be on hand to present the award for Best Actor at this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, that I am hosting as chairman of the Critics’ Circle at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

I’m thrilled that he’ll be doing it, but it’s a bittersweet occasion, as just yesterday it was formally announced that he’s finally stepping down, after some 20 years in the post, as chief theatre critic of The Times.

He’s certainly put in his time: he told me just yesterday that he wrote his first review in 1957 - and that it was a “production by the Hawkenbury Players that led to a complaint to the editor of the Kent and Sussex Courier and Tunbridge Wells”. That’s 53 years ago - and he’s spent some 47 years on national and international papers and magazines since. He’s been reviewing theatre, in other words, for longer than I’ve been alive.

According to Stephen Brook’s Guardian blog yesterday, he had started his national career in 1963 when he joined the Guardian as northern theatre critic (“a job title that speaks of a bygone age”, says Brook, though in fact the paper still retains a critical stringer who files from northern parts, Alfred Hickling, today), and subsequently served as drama critic of the New Statesman (for some 18 years), then did a stint on the New York Times (which resulted in a wonderful book, “Fifth Row Center: A Critic’s Year On and Off-Broadway” that Amazon tells me is out of print, but I’m proud to have on my bookshelf), before returning to replace Irving Wardle as drama critic on The Times in 1990, after Wardle gave up the rigour of daily deadlines for a more comfortable berth on the then newly-launched Independent on Sunday.

In other words, Benedict not only served a long apprenticeship before taking over on The Times, but he has since paid his dues in every respect to earn the respect he is held in today. There isn’t a kinder, more courteous or unruffled critic in the business, either in person or in print. I’m glad to hear that he’s not giving up entirely: he will, according to Times editor James Harding, “remain a contributor to the paper”. But as Benedict told me himself, “It will be terrific not to have to rush out of the theatre to do quick-fire reviews for the next morning’s paper, sometimes so rapidly that I end up doing them in the half-light in my car. That’s not all that conducive to the business of living to 75, let alone 120.”

I’m glad that Benedict is thinking of a long-term future still - theatre criticism doesn’t have a cut-off age, unlike being a judge on Strictly Come Dancing or reading the 10 o’clock News. (The Evening Standard’s Milton Shulman didn’t retire till he was 84). And in a refreshing burst of non-ageism, The Times has announced that his replacement is to be Libby Purves, the esteemed radio presenter and regular Times columnist, who turns 60 next week.

Stephen Brook asks in his blog, “What does Libby Purves know about theatre?” And he answers it by saying, “We will all find out from 1 June, when she takes over from Benedict Nightingale as chief theatre critic of the Times.” I assume the editor of The Times has found out already, or he would not have made the appointment. Clearly, we have to take it on trust, rather than direct experience. I look forward, though, to welcoming her to the critical ranks, and it’ll be interesting to have a new voice amongst them who already has such a high profile beyond it.

But I do wonder, inevitably, once again of the fate of a younger generation of critic, who have been serving apprenticeships on The Times and elsewhere, that have nowhere to go. There’s a whole stable of them: from the Times itself, Dominic Maxwell (who is the paper’s theatre editor) and Sam Marlowe; Dominic Cavendish on the Daily Telegraph; Time Out’s Caroline McGinn; Metro’s Claire Allfree; and freelancers like Maxie Szalwinska, Robert Shore and Lucy Powell, amongst others. Of course, this is a very finite world - there are only a limited number of papers that employ full-time critics, and there are never going to be enough jobs to go around for everyone who would like one.

Brook suggests, “Theatre criticism used to be something of a closed shop. But with Tim Walker at the Sunday Telegraph, Henry Hitchings at the London Evening Standard and now Purves at the Times, it has been opened up to outsiders, which can only be a good thing.” Journalism is always about opportunity, and some are luckier to get it than others; but it’s also about putting in the hours. Purves has certainly earned her credits as an OBE appointed journalist. But now she’ll have to start earning them all over again as a theatre critic.

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6 Comments

What does Libby Purves know about theatre? Well she has an Oxford first in English which seems a good start. Not to mention decades of wonderfully intelligent columns and all those sparky novels. I reckon she'll do well.

I join you in saluting Benedict Nightingale - an admirable elder statesman in this genre, as you say. Warmest wishes to him for an enjoyable semi-retirement - early nights and all.

Bravo Mark - a fine line, finely trod. No doubt this took some drafting, but I guess it had to be done this way. I can imagine how you're feeling deep down.

A quick response to Susan Elkin's comment:

About two years ago I was invited to the theatre to see Mamma Mia and have since uncovered a real passion for live theatre. Although I can't go that often (it's just too expensive for me) I do read up about it from as many sources as possible.

Whenever I get a chance to read this blog it is always packed with information and Mark seems to cover such a variety of shows; all his writing is based on his first hand personal experiences collected over many years. Such is the enthusiasm in the writing that I sometimes feel that I was at the show too! I often sneak a read of the review section in The Sunday Express to see what is written if I don't actually buy a copy. I don't necessarily want to read a "flat" review that is padded out with information gleaned from the internet.

So it's all very well getting in a journalist that has a First in English from Oxford but that is surely a bit different to getting in a fully fledged theatre critic with experience? I think it's a real shame that these younger writers aren't being given an opportunity to develop further in writing, especially as some have clearly chosen to dedicate their writing careers to theatre. I absolutely love Claire Allfree's writing (which I get to see nearly every day in the Metro) and also Lucy Powell's work.

Stephen Brook states that Tim Walker and Henry Hitchings have also taken this path into theatre journalism. Whilst Henry Hitchings does indeed demonstrate prior knowledge of theatre and a desire for it (I now read the Evening Standard more often since it went free, should there be a copy left that is!) whereas Tim Walker, which I can sometimes read at my local pub over lunch, must be more interested in his other writing and definitely not in the theatre. It seems he often prefers to write about the audience or the sudden rise in gay plays or fat people instead of focusing on the theatre review itself.

So with these two writers backgrounds to base this response on, I think it best to just wait and see how the review reads before saying that it's a good start based on her education of 40 years ago or because of other articles or books that she has written!

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As I commented beneath the Guardian piece, I'm not entirely sure how The Times giving a job to one of its existing columnists without advertising the post or running any kind of applications process amounts to a blow against insider culture.

An Oxford degree in English is not a qualification for a critic. What is? It's hard to say, except that it appears to help if you are someone's pal or 'an outsider.'

Why is it good for 'an outsider' to be appointed? A much better question would be, what does Henry Hitchings know about theatre? Very little, to judge from his review of the new MSND at the Rose! Mind you, Nightingale's one was pretty clueless too - he says that Titania is benoaning bad weather when in fact the speech in question is about climate change and how the supernatural world affects the actual globe. BN also says that the lovers should have been wearing Athenian dress, and that Theseus should have been a warrior. Eh? I must have seen this play 30 times but I've yet to see either presentation.

In what way is Libby Purves an 'outsider?' Why is it a good thing to appoint 'outsiders?'

All printed criticism in any field is a closed shop - you do not make it unless you are 'someone's someone.'

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