Thanks to the internet, journalists are no longer the sole distributors of news and critics no longer have the monopoly on opinion, but it has become a process that literally everyone can now participate in. That new democracy is undoubtedly welcome, though ironically, given the vast number of voices that are now clamouring to be heard, it is ones that have some authority that are more necessary than ever, to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So published newspaper reviews and features still have more clout than self-published blogs and random bulletin boards, and news stories that are found, validated and researched by journalists, are more useful than ones merely recycled out of press releases.
Tonight, for instance, according to the press release, the King’s Head will uncover the “world premiere” of Oscar Wilde’s final play Constance, written after his release from prison when he was in exile in France, for which he handed the handwritten manuscript to an American actress Mrs Cora Brown. And, the official story goes on, when she died, the manuscript passed onto a French writer Guillot de Saix, who put together a French translation with a colleague Henri de Briel. The latter was suspected of being a German collaborator, and (says the press release), “Wilde’s original English manuscript is thought to have been destroyed by members of the resistance movement when they caught up with him. However, a copy of the French translation survived in Guillot de Saix’s possession, and in due course was published in a French literary magazine.” That, in turn, has now been translated back into English, “recreating for the world a genuine, brand new, Oscar Wilde play.”
But on Tuesday Channel 4 culture correspondent Matthew Cain did a news story that casts huge doubts on this extravagant claim. He tracked down Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland (whose father was Wilde’s younger son Vyvyan), who now lives in rural France, and interviewed him. “What I discovered was that not only does Holland think that there are concerns with the attribution of much of the play’s language to Wilde but he doesn’t think Wilde ever wrote more than just a short synopsis for the play in the first place - and certainly never a full manuscript.”
Matthew cites evidence he was shown: “This included a letter from Cora Brown Potter to Wilde just a few months before he died in which she asked him when he was finally going to complete the play he’d promised her; various mentions of the play in French correspondence between several parties concerned in which it was only ever described either as ‘le scénario’ or ‘le scénario développé’; and letters from Guillot de Saix to his father Vyvyan - one admitting that de Saix and his colleague had constructed their French play around Wilde’s scenario rather than translating a finished script and another letting Vyvyan know that he could make any changes he wished if he thought parts of the script weren’t ‘worthy of the memory of his father’. Incidentally these letters were written after the war, making it impossible for de Saix’s original source material to have been destroyed during a wartime raid by the French Resistance.”
The story has duly been followed up and reported on by The Guardian yesterday. Holland tells The Guardian, “It is dishonest to foist this on the public. The play should really have been billed as ‘A play based on an idea [scenario] by Oscar Wilde, written in French by Guillot de Saix, translated into English and further adapted by Charles Osborne’.” His own verdict? “It is a pretty appalling piece of work … peppered with a few aphorisms from other plays, marginally altered in order to sound a bit like Oscar Wilde.” And that’s the difference between a press release and an investigative news report. Now, of course, we’ll find out whether the critics agree with the grandson after it opens tonight. I’m going to see it tomorrow, and will be reviewing it for The Stage on Monday.
Twitter moves faster than any press release used to be able to, as well. My inbox is routinely flooded with them (though curiously it takes those from one leading PR agency more than a day to reach me after they have been sent out to everyone else). I immediately tweet the headline if they’re noteworthy, and watch as it is in turn re-tweeted and, more importantly, commented on. An immediate commentary ensues; on Wednesday, for instance, I tweeted news of the casting of Matt Willis as the new Fiyero in Wicked, and the cross exchanges (in every sense) started immediately: one commented, “Matt Willis as in busted Flashdance Willis? The one who can’t dance and now has to dance through life?” Another said, “Matt as Fiyero is not going to please some people, is it? I think it’s great!”
But now some theatres are cutting out the middle man of the journalist to process and distribute the news for them. Just this week the National Theatre sent out a tweet about a new production of She Stoops to Conquer that will be staged in January, that was complete news to me. Usually the National does a fantastic job of keeping journalists informed of what is going on, but here Twitter knew first.
It turns out that news of the production leaked last weekend via a story in the Sunday Mirror, of all improbable theatre sources, that “Corrie favourite Becky McDonald is quitting the cobbles - to tread the boards in a posh National Theatre play. Viewers will see her flee the Street in the New Year after screen hubby Steve gets Tracy Barlow pregnant.Becky, played by actress Katherine Kelly, 31, was cheered by the cast after revealing she had landed the leading lady role in classic comedy She Stoops To Conquer in London.”
And the National, rather than issuing a release in the usual way to follow it up after their scoop had been stolen, decided to tweet it. The National’s head of press Lucinda Morrison told me, “Twitter provided a quick and effective way for us to confirm and amplify the story. It’s the first time we’ve ‘announced’ a show that way, but probably not the last. Personally I see it as adding to our communication options, depending on the circumstances, not necessarily replacing the traditional press release - yet, anyway!”
Of course I want to protect my patch, but I do wonder that if journalists start becoming redundant, so will the PRs that are there to serve us - perhaps the theatres can simply employ the social media department of the marketing office to do the job for them.