Monday, 13 August 2007

Pre-Edinburgh preamble

Yesterday I suffered a sudden pang of professional jealousy. I was reading Hermione Eyre’s TV criticism column in the Independent on Sunday (I would put a link, but the Independent’s effing website is unnavigable). It's not that I want her job, or even the theatre reviewing gig at the Sindie. No, my pang was this: in writing about the Channel 4 documentary Malcolm & Barbara: Love's Farewell, Hermione was essentially fulfilling the role of critic as social commentator - of reviews as a location of serious, intelligent discussion on an issue of national import. My pang wasn’t so much on my behalf as on the part theatre criticism.

Theatre criticism simply never gets to act in the same way, because it is close to the opposite of a post-fact TV review - rather than offering an intelligent take on something that your readers have already seen in the same time week as you, you are forever describing something that, at most, a couple of thousand people might have seen before the review is published and maybe a few thousand more will see subsequently. Frequently the numbers are far, far lower - consider the 700 people who saw Harold Pinter’s Krapp last year. On top of this, there is nothing like the same level of national interest.

What was also striking, reading the review of Love's Farewell, was that it was the culmination of a week or so when the programme had dominated the news - at least in the soft news and comment sections. It also tapped a zeitgeist - this was also the week when the Court of Appeal upheld the decision by the National Institute for Healthcare and Clinical Excellence (still unfathomably acronymed as NICE) not to recommend NHS prescription of various Alzheimer’s treatments to early-stage sufferers of the disease.

Now, there are a number of good reasons why theatre criticism doesn’t do this. Not least because theatre is - quite rightly - very rarely a documentary: it is art, or at least entertainment. Theatre isn’t usually journalism. Nonetheless, I do still sort of wish that my field wasn’t so frequently reminded of its supreme irrelevance.

Anyway, that was the upside of my reading the last week's press. The rest of it was largely dispiriting. There are times, especially when confronted with the seething pile that is the Sundays, that the future of this country looks very black indeed. If, as Mark Twain famously observed, a newspaper is the sound of a country talking to itself then much of Britain's national conversation seems to be conducted in an ignorant hysterical shrieking. It is also interesting to note that all too frequently these hysterics on the part of the media are actually about the media. This is the sound of a lunatic shrieking to itself about itself. If you get enough buses, you’ll know exactly how disturbing this is.

I should point out that this concern is largely prompted by the fact that due to the peculiarities of my job. I have to read a large proportion of everything published in the country’s newspapers in seven-day blocks every other week. While a lot of the papers are just reasonably unpleasant on an individual level, when taken en masse they start to look deeply troubling. The thing is that no one sane ever has to do this. Newspaper articles aren’t intended to be read in eleven different versions, and I can thoroughly recommend you don’t start doing so. That said, it is instructive on any given story to work one’s way down from the Financial Times (it really must be news if it’s made it into the FT) through what were "the broadsheets", where most of what varies is slant, through the Independent, Mail and Express, where the numbers and facts start getting a bit less similar to those reported uniformly hitherto (they don’t make it up per se, they just find slightly more dramatic ways of extrapolating information - usually by projecting a ten-year worst-case-scenario trend). Then you get to the tabloids, where the main object is packing the greatest level of possible sensation into a headline - often in tabloid code (perv, feral kid, migrant, tot, yob, thug, sir, caged, monster, so sad etc.) and sometimes at the expense of sense. The best example this week was the legend: 23 years for Skunk Monster - which, as it happens, this was a grim story about drug addled child torture and murder, but one whose headline irresistibly conjured images of a giant Pepé le Peu menacing the metropolis.

I’m sure there was a conclusion I was trying to reach by this point, but it has temporarily escaped me. I shall fill it in if and when I remember what it is.

In other news - My two reviews (left and right, as I’ve started to think of them) of Richard Bean’s excellent In the Club at the Hampstead Theatre are now up on CultureWars and the New Culture Forum website. One day I might have to write about the strange state of affairs that finds me writing theatre reviews almost exclusively for two of the most polarised cultural think tanks around. For the moment I shall just be grateful for the work.

Elsewhere, if you haven't already had a chance to look at my Michael Billington NSDF piece for the Times online it is worth do so if only to giggle at just how wrong a picture editor can be

Finally, it is tempting to leave you with a whole playlist of YouTube videos - it really is a terribly useful way of linking to music online, albeit with the frequently irritating fact that the videos attached frequently do the songs no favours (see below, and listen while working in another window). However, it really slows uploading the pages at this end, so I'll spare you the politically dubious delights of the quasi-Nazi band Death in June singing a song from the apparent perspective of Waffen SS soldiers called We Drive East that's been stuck in my head for the last couple of days, and instead offer you Annie Lennox doing Keep Young and Beautiful - I would have linked to the original, but it's Eddie Cantor in blackface, and I'm not sure Postcards wants to support that kind of thing.


Sean said...

That pic of Billington is very very funny, I laughed out loud.

Agree about the collective sense of TV as opposed to theatre. If only all reviews reflected a more considered intelligent edge, some of the Edinburgh reviews I have been reading are no nore than a few lines (is that worthwhile? How can we possibly get anything other than brutal like or dislike from that?)

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I think that's rather a counsel of despair as regards theatre criticism. You, like me, have heard Robert Hewison talking about how a review can (and usually should) place its subject work both horizontally in the context of the theatre and society of the moment and vertically in terms of various histories from those of its ctreators to, er, history. And still the most succinct description of the critic's function that I've ever heard is Michael Coveney's: "to explain culture to itself". You do what you can: you know it'll never be the last word, especially not with the length restrictions on print pieces, but it can be, uh, word.

Conversely, my own semi-direct experience of TV critics - nearly a decade ago now, though - when they reviewed a programme on which Jon Ronson created a tissue of mendacity about me after fly-on-the-walling me doing a show of my own in Edinburgh... anyway, I was shocked at precisely how little they did other than reporting and witticising about what was presented onstage. Only two even remotely questioned the programme's own structure and concern, and one of those was AA Gill who'd probably just decided that Ronson made a more appetising target than me.

Anyway, what I meantersay, Pip old chap, is that speed and immediacy of comment doesn't equate to value thereof.

Andrew Haydon said...

But who's going to explain Michael Coveney? That's what I'd like to know...