Boris Johnson

The Mayor of London

The Critics Circle

Reflections on the state of the arts

We Do Things Differently Here

Tom Sutcliffe

Published: 21/06/2013


This article first appeared in the June/July 2013 issue of The London Magazine

It is a fact that repertory theatre and
ensembles of long-term contracted actors have entirely vanished from the United
Kingdom without one of the recognised authorities on the theatre expressing
concern. The reps of which there were about 100 up and down the country when
the second world war ended were part of a then quite recent movement in early
20th-century theatre. Ensembles on permanent or long-term contract
did briefly become part of the theatrical landscape, and seemed to matter with
the creation of the National Theatre in 1963 and the Royal Shakespeare Company
a few years earlier. But there are almost no regional theatre critics of
standing these days, nor have there have been for many years, and there are no
local newspapers that deal seriously with culture - which is not surprising
since any critics they employed would have difficulty finding much to write
about outside London and Manchester.

 In Great Britain the theatre has always been dominated by the West End magnet to
which all actors of note have always been drawn, though Scottish and Irish
theatre have fulfilled a crucial role helping to define and sustain the notion
of Scots and Irish character, and thereby the nature of local nationalism. Even
Michael Billington, from 1971 chief theatre critic of The Guardian in
succession to Philip Hope-Wallace, did not see his role as being in part to
discuss how the theatre public up and down the country outside London was or
was not being fed a sustaining diet. Initially as chief theatre critic he was to
an extent confined to London since the northern and early editions of the once
Manchester Guardian continued, for some decades after London printing of the
paper started, to publish a complete roster of performing arts reviews from
specialist music, theatre, dance and even art critics in the regions. And some
of those critics were even fulltime staff members.

But it was not as if there were no warning signs that something serious was
happening. The last and 16th edition of Who’s Who in Theatre
appeared in 1977, with its full detailed lists of London and New York openings
and its substantial roster of biographies detailing the careers of vast numbers
of actors, directors and playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic - Broadway
and the West End had long been twinned, the gold standard against which
provincial theatre was always likely to be found wanting. The collapse of rep
was seen as a natural phenomenon, explicable in terms of declining ticket sales
and public interest and rising costs. Peter Hall felt no regrets if the pier
theatres in summer resorts vanished because quality like that was not worth
preserving. Had not we created a National Theatre in 1963 after decades of
prevarication, and a Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford whose best work
could be enjoyed at the Aldwych Theatre? Change was natural and the market
could not be evaded. True, a visit by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble excited
admiration and interest - and the Royal Court Theatre demonstrated comparable
vitality attending to the Angry Young Men and European absurdist drama, feeding
its enthusiasms and experience into the national company which Laurence Olivier
created at the Old Vic. But nobody seriously contemplated examining why Germany
possessed a professional theatrical culture which was spread around the whole
country, with 250 more or less permanent contracted ensembles of actors and 80
opera companies. Something to do with their different traditions, their lack of
unity until the advent of Bismarck, the tinpot rivalry of different courts as
described memorably by Thackeray in Vanity Fair.

 Today if you ask the financialcontroller of any Germany subsidised company, they will tell you that a
permanent contracted ensemble - whether in opera or in theatre, exactly as in
dance (an art where of course Britain has to have ensembles working together on
a long-term basis to achieve anything of value) - is fundamental to keeping
costs of performance down and productivity up, and thereby nurturing current
audiences and laying the foundation for the audiences of the future, since a
permanent company is available to give performances of individual productions
throughout a season, which means the local public need not be on the ball about
what might be worth catching, and word of mouth can gradually filter through.
All of which is a good viable model for a country where there is a healthy
tradition of local government as well as a substantial number of large
conurbations within fiercely competing and self-conscious federal states - as
opposed to the UK system where even the largest cities outside London are in
fact dominated by the immense metropolis.

 Just as British theatres and opera companies no longer have ensembles, so British
newspapers in the course of the last 30 to 40 years have given up employing
staff critics. Even a purportedly left-wing newspaper like the Guardian felt no
shame (apparently) about wholesale casualisation in the field of the arts.
After all, following the appointment of 
William Rees-Mogg as chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain after
the Conservative election victory of 1979 and resulting from the policies he
outlined in The Glory of the Garden and subsequently pursued, exactly the same
fate was in store for the acting profession even though most of the older
leading actors of today started out and won their spurs as members of weekly or
fortnightly repertory companies usually in the north.

Management consultants were probably not disposed to recognise what staff critics or an ensemble of
contracted actors might provide - in addition to reviews on the night and
performances. It seems nobody ever pointed out the bonus that would come from
critics’ identification with the institution (the newspaper title) for which
they were working, assuming they were on staff, just as nobody ever persuaded
local British politicians or the Arts Councils of the countries that make up
the UK that ensembles of actors and singers resident in a long-lived
institution will do far more than merely perform there. They become (as they
are in Germany) part of the recognisable fabric of society in a town. They are
owned by the local population. They get known to school children. They are
turned, the best of them, into local stars. They can engender a sense of local
culture, as good as what other people have, and (some locals may even say or
think) as good as what you might get in London.

Live performance matters because it is a discipline - for audiences as for performers. You have
to be present and awake, you have to exercise your memory and concentrate, you
are not entirely passive if you are to get what you should out of it and put
what you should into it. Is it really so heart-warming to think that your local
football club is owned by a Russian billionaire who can purchase the best
footballers around and pay them commensurately? Or would you rather be able to
identify with those who are playing as the best your locality can generate? Of
course there are no winners or losers in theatre, classical music, and dance.
And it is you in the audience who need to apply your imagination to what you
are witnessing to give it that added revelatory quality for your own purposes
on which your pleasure and involvement ultimately depend. “The best in this
kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them,” as
Shakespeare’s Theseus reminds us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the
promotion of classical music LPs and CDs has involved a massive and highly
misleading sales operation in which the public have often - frankly - been
kidded about the nature of the best on offer and also about the compelling
quality of what the enthusiast and purchaser needed to own. The commercial
imperative which has always dominated the live performing arts in Britain was
only kept temporarily at bay for at most 35 years after 1945 - the brief period
when we subsidised the live performing arts enough for them to be available to
some extent to the masses living far away from London.

In London the effect of 40 years of cheap travel has been immense, and has magnified further
the already over-weening role of the British metropolis into a status
comparable with that of Versailles in 17th- and 18th-century
France. Ironically Scottish devolution has if anything done further damage to
the live performing arts, judging by Scottish Opera’s loss of its chorus and
questions over continuing support for its orchestra. In London commercial
theatre has seen the amassing of vast wealth, thanks to tourism. Yet no
impresarios are putting on new plays in West End commercial theatres as they
used to do week after week until the 1980s, and no provincial theatre risks
performing anything much except safe classics and popular hits. Partly that is
because of the musicals these days parked in the West End and what the profits
from a tourist-dominated market have done to West End costs. But partly it’s
because - away from the National Theatre and the Royal Court - there is no mass
audience for spoken plays. And artistic policy at the National Theatre under
Nicholas Hytner has been uncompromisingly commercial - geared to popular taste
with West End transfers as a major valuable objective seen by many supporters
of current National Theatre policy as a reliable way of maintaining the
institution, its range of work, and its future health. Yet Ian McKellen has a
point when he says that he and Judy Dench may be the last theatrical stars
created in the theatre rather than by television or film.

British professional performing arts critics have inevitably been
affected by this revival in the power of the almighty market. The outlines of the discourse to which they
contributed used to be very clear. It is worth remembering how the critic Kenneth Tynan launched his career in 1950
at the age of 23 barely out of Oxford. He published a book of essays, He that Plays the King, all about major
acting performances, and won the approval of James Agate, the doyen of theatre
critics at the time. Tynan was at that stage and remained a performer to his
finger tips even if the reviews he received as the Player King in Alec
Guinness’s Festival of Britain Hamlet would
have put anybody off employing him on stage. Perhaps no two critics that matter
are ever alike. But it is hard to see on what basis an interesting and youthful
theatre critic could nowadays gain much experience of what the theatre at its
best can offer. On the fringe, at the Royal Court and at the National there is
a lot of new work. What is not there to a sufficient extent is the classic
literature of English and European theatre which was always the mainstay of the
repertoire, as Lindsay Anderson often pointed out, in association with the new
in the repertoire devised by George Devine at the Court and Olivier and Tynan
at the National Theatre in that crucial period of transition when the power of
H M Tennent disappeared along with Binkie Beaumont and the Angry Young Men,
almost all now dead, arrived.

 Today, of course, the supposedly wonderful quality of the British arts scene in London
is underlined by a series of awards ceremonies and a whole system of prize-giving
and hyping which of course largely relates to performance in or near London for
the bourgeois classes that take the traditional live performing arts seriously
and base themselves in or near the capital. And this whole ecology of prizes
and awards is designed as a cheap short-cut to the assertion and recognition
that we in Britain have at our disposal more than enough excellence in
achievement and success to be able to proclaim British standards as world-class
- even if they are actually very often nothing of the sort. This brilliantly
sustained public relations myth is a sort of poison at the heart of British
culture.

 “World class” is one of those indicative verbal concepts like, for example, “luxury flats” that says a
lot - but certainly does not mean at all what most of those using it would like
to think it means. The Glyndebourne Festival must surely think that Robin
Ticciati, appointed to be the festival’s new music director in 2015 in
succession to Vladimir Jurowski, is world class - like all his predecessors.
But sadly potential international conductors who stick to developing their
careers mainly in Britain have a hard time of it because, with so few opera
companies and regional orchestras here, the opportunities to serve a proper
apprenticeship in Britain barely exist. Conducting a chamber orchestra is not
that much use as training. Most competent orchestras can perform perfectly well
a large part of the repertory with or without a conductor. Few critics are
qualified to make informed comments on whether there really is much value added
being provided by a young conductor. Ticciati conducted Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne in
2012 without suffering much unfavourable comment. But his handling of Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden in 2013,
in front of a particularly pretentious new production by the incoming young
Danish Director of Opera Kasper Holten, was greeted with a torrent of comment
focussed on his lack of appropriate preparation. Just because Simon Rattle or
Daniel Harding or (at English National Opera) Edward Gardner had contrived to
survive premature exposure as a result of winning a competition or getting a
major appointment at an extremely early age does not mean that the British
system of spotting stars and winners is any substitute for having widespread
opportunities for those with the right gifts to serve appropriate
apprenticeships. Ticciati conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the
relationship is well regarded. But the truth is that a chamber orchestra with
distinguished membership barely needs a conductor at all. As Pamela Rosenberg,
a famous opera and orchestra administrator in Germany, has commented, the best
way for a conductor to learn the job is not working with the best players in an
already established orchestra playing repertoire with which the players are
already familiar in the context of (or under the baton of) more than one famed
and very likely great conductor. What a budding maestro learns from is working
with less than good players and enabling them to become better than they might
have seemed at first sight or hearing.

 But equally the British honours system, and the way the British media count on
easily stimulating interest among readers and viewers by reporting on prizes
and prize-winners, in reality make very little contribution to the health of
the arts. Similarly young singer programmes 
providing a kind of finishing school for potential stars (like the Jette
Parker scheme at Covent Garden) do nothing much for opera, though exploitation
of young talents may save a bit of money for the Royal Opera and earn the
institution some goodwill. Of course the singers chosen for Jette Parker are
very talented: the competition for places is international and fierce. But the
Royal Opera no longer has any comprimarios around to give tips and advice to
the would-be young performers, since it has no ensemble, but compared with
working in a well-run ensemble in Germany they will have much less chance of
gaining appropriate experience singing roles that will really stretch their
gifts and advance their skills. The reason for going there is a bit like
playing the old boardgame snakes and ladders: Covent Garden could be a way of
being spotted and getting a chance that will advance your singing career much
faster towards the stratosphere than would be likely from a German provincial
house. Since the Royal Opera is heavily supported by the British taxpayer, it
would perhaps be more appropriate for Jette Parker to concentrate on young
British artists - but that would not of course fit the public image of Covent
Garden which is all about international calibre and the ticket prices that can
go with that. If there was more opera in Britain at an affordable price it
would be easier to justify the international aspirations and cost of Covent
Garden as a top grade performing arts institution.

Being awarded with an honour in Britain is usually a pointless recognition that you have indeed
achieved something by your career and are already well established. It is
merely feelgood acknowledgment. As for winning prizes, that may indeed be
worthwhile if it leads to a lot of sales as it can with books and novels, where
prizewinning, or even nominations for consideration for a prize, offer a public
relations shortcut and valuable presence on the bookshop counter where
potential readers make impulse purchases. But as the world’s piano competition
organisers well know, their event is only as good as its recent winners. If the
winner becomes famous the competition may get some recognition. A competition
is a moment in a career. And, in a field that is so professionally competitive
where the best performers these days live and go on playing into their 90s,
staying power and popular appreciation are what really count. In Britain the
Critics’ Circle (a century old in May 2013) has established awards programmes
for each of its five sections - though the awards by the Music section have
come and gone from time to time. Film and theatre are quite successful, though
there are better known awards (BAFTA, the Evening Standard, for instance), and
the National Dance Awards are unique. The Royal Philharmonic Society has taken
to holding awards ceremonies too. But by and large all of these various awards
schemes merely confirm success and recognition that are already fully in
evidence.  They are harmless. They may
even help to make the RPS and Critics’ Circle members feel they are doing
something together that is useful. But all such rewards and citations mean very
little, compared with, for example, the 
life-changing benefit to a composer of serious music for a few years
that stems from winning an award like the Grawemeyer (worth $100,000
currently). Will the International Opera Awards launched in association with
the magazine Opera manage to carry conviction, based as they are in the UK
which is definitely not the operatic workshop of the world.

The reduced importance of the performing arts in Great Britain is perversely related to the
immense importance of London as a tourist venue - since London no longer an
imperial capital but instead a magnet for tourism has created with all those
tourists needing diversion the chimera that commercial theatre is a viable
model and capable of commercially generating immense wealth - though that
lesson is completely inapplicable in the provinces. In addition the absence of
proper responsible elected local government structures in Britain and the
remoteness of funding for the performing arts provided by a metropolitan-based
Arts Council means that theatre, classical music, opera and dance are simply
not owned and supported where they need to be. The German model works,
providing for massive employment of actors in locally funded and permanently
contracted theatre ensembles. The vital factor in Germany is the federal
constitution under which Kanzler’s government in Berlin does not spend all the
money, but instead passes it down to the Länder (federal states like
Baden-Württemberg or Thuringia or North Rhine-Westphalia) which in turn adhere
to the virtuous principles of subsidiarity that has empowered a town like
Erfurt to take control of the building of its own new opera house with vast
workshops for scenery and costumes, larger than the Royal Opera House’s in
Covent Garden, despite the deal it attempted to do with neighboring Weimar not
leading to the intended result (namely that Weimar (pop.64,400) would concentrate
on spoken theatre while Erfurt (pop. 203,300) would do the opera. The cities
are 15 minutes train-ride apart. In the German-speaking world (Austria and
Switzerland as well as the Federal Republic) there are almost 100 opera
companies with choruses, orchestras, contracted company singers. Germany is the
engine of the world’s opera. Local opera companies in small towns are full of
excellent singers from Korea, Brazil, Ukraine, etc Of course they have no
shortage in Germany of properly trained conductors. Equally there are vast
ranks of potential Intendants and Artistic directors for these theatre and
opera companies and orchestras waiting in line for their chance, whereas in
Britain there seems to be a dearth of talent at the right level. But this
problem with the performing arts is particularly British.

Subsidy, never adequate in Britain, is now definitively and terminally shrinking the worlds of
classical music, opera, theatre and dance. On the other hand, the range of
topics which the culture pages in papers address has vastly increased - so our
theatre or music critic is one among many other voices and downgraded as a
result. The discourse about theatre has completely changed: the purpose of
reviews, editors think, is so the punter can decide whether to bring out his
credit card. No wonder classical music reviewing is treated as if it is a
complete waste of space. The concert is over. What’s the point? It’s only worth
writing about for readers who are thinking about music and its performance -
and most of the critics of classical music have nothing to say about either the
music or its performance, both of which are unsuited to comparative assessment.
Most performers these days are good if not excellent, and the music is the
music. It’s all out there on the internet or on CD. If there is something worth
saying about it or about one particular performance, never to be repeated, you
need as the critic to be one hell of an interesting commentator and to have the
confidence that there is somebody out there who cares what you choose to write.

 Some of the very best classical music conductors are precisely those who are also
composers, bringing to bear a composer’s view of what performance is trying to
achieve. It matters for the quality of the discourse in which criticism engages
that some critics you read from time to time have also themselves been
professional performers or creative artists. The performer (whether an actor or
opera-singer or director) does not merely comment on received interpretation as
critics do, he or she has known the responsibility of interpreting and
delivering work to audiences. Speaking for myself I can say for certain that
having been a professional singer always informed my response as a critic to
singers I was reviewing or merely just listening to. When I hear singing I
remember and I actually feel the physical sensations that I know singing
involves - and I also experience by proxy the emotion involved in realising a
song. Fellow journalists and critics who lacked my practical background were
sometimes shocked by my frankness and conviction. Perhaps expertise about what
was going on freed me up in responding so firmly (sometimes cruelly). But the
public might be shocked to hear the uncompromising views singers express in
private about each other’s work and competence.

 London of course has acquired a mayor - in response to the perceived error of Margaret
Thatcher’s infuriated abolition of Ken Livingstone’s fiefdom, the Greater
London Council - though Boris Johnson is not yet in charge of London’s live
performing arts culture as perhaps he should be. London does well with its two
opera companies and its immensely rich commercial theatreland. But perhaps a
city with a population as large as many countries in the European Union needs
to think about doing even better by its resident population - rather than see
theatre as so often an evening out for tourists. Berlin’s theatre companies are
distributed around the city. Is it fanciful to imagine that Croydon could be
improved by having a resident permanent rep company at the Ashcroft Theatre?
Should English National Opera once again employ a permanent ensemble, why
should it not perform when the Coliseum is occupied by ballet at the Hackney
Empire or the Streatham Hill Theatre? Both locations have little live
performing arts within easy reach, but lots of potential audience.

 London’s dominance probably reaches back to Roman times. The issue is whether the
restoration of proper financially responsible local government might mean that
large cities up and down the UK could be tasked also with responsibility for
the orchestras and theatres that a revived and internationally successful
industrial mittelstand, with the exchanges of skilled people and managers
involved, would come to expect - and even be attracted by? At present our
budding musicians who want to become conductors gravitate to Germany for their
training and often never achieve re-entry to John Bull’s island. The same is
true of many of our singers with potential. 

 On the other hand it is as well to recognise that the predominant culture in
Britain is overwhelmingly literary and private. We are proud to be
Shakespeare’s country, of course. But we have never done much about the live
performing arts with their costly, inconveniently social character. The British
public gets culture now as in the past mostly from reading books, not from live
theatre (however much newspapers go on about the wonders of British theatre).
In fact theatre was slightly dubious - mere entertainment - in the days before
sex and women’s lib.

Film is the next most popular British artform after reading matter, because it was
both cheap and profitable to supply it to the mass of the population when it
became technically feasible to do so around the time of the first world war,
and after the development of television (though cinemas closed and shrank in
size) film simply became the staple filler between programmes, just as, later,
videos and DVDs became the alternative to books in the home. The attention paid
to the Booker Prize demonstrates the pre-eminence of novels, biography, popular
history, even poetry. The written culture - like films - has necessarily, and
readily, to be enjoyed by the public.

The promotion of classical music LPs and CDs since the second world war has
involved a massive and more than a little misleading sales operation in which
the public have from time to time been willingly kidded about the nature of the
best on offer and also about the compelling quality of what the enthusiast and
purchaser needed to own. The BBC’s Building a Library represents a touching and
rather engaging belief in absolute standards and critical objectivity that
countries with more live musical performance can relax about.

 The truth is that the commercial imperative which has always dominated the live
performing arts (and painting, sculpture and architecture) in Britain was only
kept temporarily at bay for at most 35 years after 1945 - the brief halcyon and
Keynsian period when we subsidised the live performing arts enough for them to
be available to some extent to the masses living far away from London. But the
challenge of the live performing arts is not just who will pay for what is
there to be seen and enjoyed, but whether a country can afford to make the live
performing arts so much the preserve of a privileged moneyed superior class
without undermining its claim to be civilised as well as democratic.



Ends

CONTACT

Enquiries about the Critics' Circle should be made to the Hon Gen Sec Rick Jones by email criticscircleallsections@gmail.com or telephone 020 8698 2460.