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Voice of the people


Monday’s Guardian included a full page ad for the new Wildworks outdoor show Babel, being presented as part of World Stages London, containing critical quotes. “Heart-warming and uplifting,” says one. “Eye-opening and inspiring,” says another. Yet another claims, “loved it, incredibly impressive and uplifting.” And who wrote them? Tom, Dick and Harry, that’s who — or rather, Tom, Ambra and Hunt. As the tagline over the ad puts it, “The People Have Spoken!”

Yet we have no idea at all who they are. It’s all reminds me a bit of the debacle a few years ago over a show called Madame Zangara’s Theatre of Dreams where one review quoted in another Guardian ad at the time claimed, “Delicious food, fabulous show, talented cast, all in all, an enchanted evening”; and it is credited to The Outside Organisation. As I wrote at the time, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They’re none other than the show’s London PR agency!”

And on the website for the Madame Zangara show, they also had another quote that was attributed to someone called Penny McDonald. And where does McDonald from? The Outside Organisation! A quick visit to The Outside Organisation’s own website informed me that she was no less than its managing director at the time! So, as I commented then, “If you don’t get the quotes you want, you obviously make up your own, and by naming yourself as the source, you’re presumably in the clear. Or are you? Surely there’s an implied inference that a quote is independent, and not on the inside - even if, in this case, inside means being Outside.”



I don’t know who put together the ad for Babel, and I have no idea whether the quotes are real or fabricated. But what I do know is that without knowing who these people actually are, they’re meaningless. It could all be a bit like Ken Livingstone shedding (supposedly real) tears watching his election video of Londoners speaking about their experiences of living here — whereas they were all speaking from a script that they’d been hired to read from!

So what, for the record, were the real critics’ views of Babel? Michael Coveney noted in his blog, “It’s rubbish, and most critics have said so, even leading apologists for this sort of old-hat alternative event theatre, Lyn Gardner and Susannah Clapp.” For Lyn, it was, “a limp cross-London community project,” and she added, “All those people, all that effort and all that talent - squandered on an evening that is too thin on a narrative level, never giving its audience characters to care about or despise. It is lacking in both spectacle and mythic resonance.” Susannah also invoked the c-word — community — dubbing it “more community theatre than engrossing spectacle.”

And in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer was even blunter, calling it a “criminal waste of everyone’s time, effort and money.”

But the new fashion for ‘letting the people speak’ — and never mind Babel, the babble is deafening these days — took another turn last week, with the launch of a new weekly Guardian blog feature of reader reviews. As the blog’s intro says, “We know from your comments, many of you want to share your verdict on the performances you’ve just seen, but the reviews can be spread out between different comment threads and Twitter as many more readers tweet us their thoughts using the hashtag #Gdnreview. So, this is our first stab at a solution; a weekly roundup blog.”

And before we know it, producers will be quoting from it, I’m sure — citing, of course, The Guardian. Because that, of course, is where it has appeared. But not, of course, who wrote it. The Critics’ Circle has already urged publicists and advertising agencies to cite the reviewer name alongside the publication, so whatever the comment can be tracked back to an individual critic. I think we will need to demand this as a matter of course in the future.

One way around it all, of course, is the technique once famously employed by the maverick Broadway impresario David Merrick, who found a bunch of New Yorkers who shared the self-same names as Broadway theatre critics of the day and invited them to his critically reviled production of Subways are for Sleeping, then published their favourable comments in an ad alongside their names. As Merrick’s biographer Howard Kissel writes in his book on Merrick, the brilliantly titled The Abominable Showman, “So that he could not be accused of misrepresentation the ad included postage stamp size of the non-critics.”

Then Merrick pulled off his smartest move: “The newspaper advertising departments were alerted that the ad might not arrive until just before press time, which meant that it could not be seen or approved through the normal channels.”

The Herald-Tribune ran it as is. The New York Times, however, got a tip-off from the man who brought the ad to the paper that spoilt the stunt: “He told a long-time associate there to make a print so he could check the ad before setting it into its final form. ‘And,’ he added, ‘maybe call your counterpart at the Trib to ask if he knew that Richard Watts was black’.” The ad was hastily pulled and never appeared in print in the Times as a result.

According to Kissel, Merrick “had been aching to orchestrate this stunt for years but he had had to wait until Brooks Atkinson retired.” The age of the great Broadway stunt is not over even now: after failing to get much of a showing in the nominations stake for this year’s Tony Awards, Michael Cohl and Jeremiah J Harris, the producers of Spider-man - Turn off the Dark, issued a press statement, headlined “Spider-man Turn off the Dark makes an unprecedented announcement about Tonys.” In it, they stated, “The high flying production will hold a special Tony Sunday performance at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 10, for which anyone with the first name Anthony, Tony, Antoinette, Toni, or Antonio will be eligible to receive a free ticket. ’It has been brought to our attention that the Tonys have been honoring Broadway for years, and we thought it was about time to repay the favor,’ Cohl and Harris said in a joint statement. They added, ‘Nothing would make us prouder than to have more Tonys than any other show on Broadway on Sunday, June 10’.”

If you know you’re not going to win many Tonys, it’s one way to make sure you get them to your show, if not for it.

6 Comments

NOSTALGIA - "the best musical I've ever written" (Andy Calloway)

The 'Babel' effect is also being seen out here in the regions with venues happily re tweeting glowing comments from customers - including last week a gushing 'review' from the venue's Head of Communications (although obviously they forgot to mention that bit!)

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This protest reminds me of Nikki Grahame's "Who are these people?" tantrum in the Big Brother 7 diary room. But I suppose my comment is meaningless because we have no idea at all who I am.

Many potential audience members value word of mouth more highly than critical opinion, because they know it to chime better with their own experiences and reactions. So anonymous vox pop is often seductive, despite being open to fabrication as you describe.

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"Many potential audience members value word of mouth more highly than critical opinion" - true - "because they know it to chime better with their own experiences and reactions" - false. They may believe this to be so, but it isn't. This recurrence of the old myth has finally prompted me to put on my own web site the research I conducted and published on this matter in 2006 - see http://www.cix.co.uk/~shutters/readrev.htm

@Kenneth Griffin: First of all, since you own your comment by placing your full (and presumably real!) name here, we know a bit more about you already than the usual Tom/Dick/Harriet, of the sort I cited in the ad. Also, as you are someone who posts regular comments on this blog, I also have started to get a sense of who you are.... And that's one of the things that separates critics from anonymous punters: by reading this blog as regularly as you do, you've got a sense of who I am and whether or not I'm trustworthy and whether (or not!) you usually agree with me, and can decide to act on what I say accordingly. Just as I, from seeing the many comments you have posted on this blog in the past, know that are you committed to sharing your opinions, and the sort of weight I should give them.

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