The Guardian yesterday ran a tribute to its long serving TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith, who joined the paper all of forty years ago - and is still writing for it today.
That’s an astonishing run, but so is the warmth of the tributes that were paid to her which helps to explain it. As producer and screenwriter Phil Redmond commented, “The truth is sometimes difficult to take. She is probably one of the most objective critics I have had on my back. Most critics are too busy writing about themselves, or trying to outdo each other with the best pun or joke. Nancy doesn’t have to do that because she is the real thing. Her writing is just good, honest, objective reporting. You know that she cares, and understands exactly what it’s all about.”
And Sheila Hancock points out, “She can sum up a programme in a single phrase: you may not have seen it, but you know from one sentence of hers what it was like. She is never particularly vile. It’s not that I think critics shouldn’t be; sometimes we deserve it. But her tone is always whimsical regret; it is never nasty or bitchy, just a lark. When she doesn’t like something, it’s rather like your granny saying: ‘Oh well, you could do better than that, but I like you all the same.’ If she ever said anything bad about me, it would probably make me laugh. We get a lot of stick from bad writers — ones who know nothing about the medium. Nancy knows who everybody is, what the programmes are and watches religiously. I get the feeling that she writes her beautifully crafted columns with great care and honesty.”
And that’s exactly what critics should be: passionate, informed, encouraging and committed (and great writers, too). But she’s also had time to hone the craft and writes from a rich pool of experience. In the theatre, we still are fortunate to have a body of critics - the “dead white males”, as Nick Hytner so famously dubbed them just a few years ago - who can draw on the same kind of reservoir of deep knowledge.
I respect and revere colleagues like Michael Billington, Benedict Nightingale and John Peter, all of them now over 70. But John Peter has already been relegated to an understudy role, usually only filing one review a week instead of the lead reviews that he used to give so ably. A couple of weeks ago the retirement was officially announced of Benedict Nightingale, and he’s being replaced by theatrical newcomer Libby Purves.
She’s got a lot of catching up to do: earlier this week she turned 60, and even if she’s been going to the theatre regularly all her life, I doubt she’s ratcheted up the experience of a lifetime spent in the stalls (not to mention upper circles and balconies). Only Michael Billington - who is the longest serving of all national critics, having taken over the critical hot seat at The Guardian in 1971—will remain reviewing regularly, and long may he continue.
Of course we also have a second generation, now in their 50s, that includes Oxford contemporaries Charles Spencer and Paul Taylor, who can now match Billington, Nightingale and Peter for dedication to the cause of theatrical journalism: Charlie has been on the Telegraph since 1991, Paul on the Indie since 1990, so they’re on, or approaching, their 20th anniversaries.
But the kind of runs that they’ve all had are unlikely to be matched in the future, at least on the same publications. Michael Coveney has also had a long track record - via Plays and Players to the FT, Observer and Daily Mail to his current home on Whatsonstage - while Ian Shuttleworth has also done long service from the late City Limits to number two on the FT to joint number one there.
But the days of having a single journalistic home for the bulk of one’s career are probably, alas, over.