Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Possibly the least helpful thing about the reams of comment in reaction to Matt Trueman's recent piece asking whether bloggers should write-up previews was the entirely specious resurrection of the “Critics vs Bloggers” trope. Specious in this particular instance because Trueman has one foot very firmly in each camp.

What I found fascinating, though, watching the comments unfold, was the extent to which the terrain of the debate had shifted in the three and a half short years since it first went massive in relation to theatre.

It was 17th September 2007 when Michael Billington posted Who needs reviews? on the Guardian Theatre Blog, in which he posited a series of provocative if largely misinformed binary oppositions between the printed review and the “blog”. The next day, St. Lyn of the Bloggers (as she then was) wrote the inspiring counter-argument Blogging saved critics from extinction. A few days later, Natasha Tripney rounded the whole dialectical farrago off with the synthesis Blogs and reviews should be best friends – a much better piece than the title suggests, although I'm biased as it contains one of the earliest and most glowing mentions of the then three-month-old Postcards from the Gods, eight days ahead of my own debut piece for the Guardian Theatre Blog.

That said, while re-reading the articles from that period for this piece, I rediscovered the brilliantly provocative, bracingly angry and sadly now defunct Encore Theatre Magazine. As early as November 2006 it was drawing up (far more meaningful) battle lines against the print-based critics, before exploding against them in the wake of their reviews of the Crimp/Mitchell Attempts on Her Life (another declaration of interest – it was in the comments under that Encore piece that I found the first piece real of praise for anything I'd written, posted by someone I didn't know: “Have a look at Andrew Haydon’s review on Culture Wars. The backlash against ‘amateur’ bloggers and reviewers by the broadsheet critics made me laugh. As if you’d ever get anything this articulate and intellectually rigorous in a newspaper...” - which suggests that the critics vs bloggers thing had kicked off earlier than I remember).

Also prior to Blog September, there was also May 2007's Dead White Males saga (as summarised there by the West End Whingers). So, the background to Billington's defence of the print critic against the “blogger” was counter-action against a genuine sense of revolution (at least in terms of the tiny world of writing about what one thinks about some performances).

Given that I started Postcards... in July 2007, at the point when the DWM debate blew up I was neither “professional” critic nor “blogger”. I was the theatre editor for the online magazine CultureWars.org, for which I'd been reviewing since it started in Edinburgh 2000. As such, at the time, I pretty much subscribed to the doing-it-“properly” model of theatre criticism, albeit one with slightly more flexible wordcounts.

Blogging, I thought, was an entirely different activity to criticism or, more prosaically, “writing reviews”. After all, I was the theatre editor of an online reviews site – an entity which seemed to be entirely absent from the discussion about “bloggers vs critics”. Granted there were “blogs” which were mostly reviews, the West End Whingers being the most celebrated example. But back then, as I wrote in my first ever post here “The purpose of this blog is to provide a space for “unofficial” comment and reviews which don’t quite come within the remit of, well, any of the other places for whom I write stuff.”

So there we were in 2007/8. If you want to have a look at what the “blogosphere” (I really do hate that word – does anyone know a better one?) looked like then, take a look at Chris Wilkinson's first post when he took over the Guardian Theatre Blog's Noises Off column from Kelly Nestruck. An instructive comparison is to then look at most of the Noises Off blogs from mid-09 onwards, where, apart from the flagging up of the odd post from Chris Goode, almost all the action reported seems to be in America. Since Noises Off's function has never been to round up the reviews blogs, but to offer a digest of the “think-piece blogs”, it's fair to say that it seemed for a very long time like blogging had pretty much gone extinct in the UK outside the Guardian's own theatre blog.

About a year later Lyn Gardner expressed her concern that the Guardian, by picking up pretty much everyone with a non-review-based theatre blog who could write, and giving them occasional work as *Guardian* bloggers, had accidentally broken the ecology of Britain's theatrical blogosphere. I certainly know what she meant. I know that I was certainly guilty at many points of – if I had an idea for a blog piece – always pitching it to the Guardian first, and would rarely write things here instead. After all, if you can write something for money in 500 words, why on earth would you write it for free across 2,000+ words?

At the same time, however, there were other reasons for the death of what we might call the original theatre blog scene. Not least among them is the word “professional” again. The most notable early casualty was David Eldridge's (still greatly missed) blog One Writer and his Dog, which Eldridge closed essentially after a Guardian Noises Off column which he felt damagingly re-contextualised some quotes from his blog – I think about audiences at the National Theatre. Of course, Eldridge was always going to be a playwright with a career to consider first and a blogger second.

It's pure speculation, but wonder if it was the same sort of consideration that also played a part in the gradual quietening of other blogs. Certainly when I started, I didn't know anyone at the Guardian, didn't know any of their bloggers, and think I'm right in saying that (although I could be misremembering the chronology) I barely knew any other critics except Ian Shuttleworth and Robert Hewison (from NSDF). Within six months of starting Postcards... I was reviewing weekly for Time Out, occasionally for the FT, blogging on a nigh-on weekly basis for the Guardian and doing round-table discussions with critics like Mark Shenton and Matt Wolf on TheatreVoice.

As such, I was significantly more busy, thus long musing blogs (such as this one) tended to get sidelined with reviews to write, The Game to stay on top of and Guardian blogs to write (for money!). Much more than this, though, turning “professional” definitely had an effect on what I felt able to say. I remember reading back over some of my earliest Postcards... pieces about a year or so on, and being staggered by what I'd felt able to say about people who were now my colleagues, or in some cases, my boss. So, again “professional”ism even at this low level already had its drawbacks.

Anyway, that's my version of the back-story. In short: in 2007, theatre blogs were relatively new. And, in the main, they had a very different slant on theatre to the majority of reviews published in the press.

Fast forward to 2011 and the kerfuffle over Trueman's piece, which brought to my attention a bunch of new theatre blogs. Which, if I wasn't looking too carefully, I'd say largely reproduced the exact same reviewing agenda as the mainstream media.

It's worth noting at this point, however, that the seemingly unchangable monolith of “Dead White Males” had also altered. From Billington, de Jongh, Nightingale and Spencer, we had shifted to Billington, Hitchings, Purves and Spencer. A quarter less male, and markedly less “dead” - if still both privately educated, and both Oxford graduates (making the first string critics of every London daily bloody Oxonians, FFS).

More interestingly for this discussion, and more depressingly for anyone who had been a theatre critic before their appointments, neither came from a background of theatre criticism. Hitchings – who, in the interests of transparency, I should say I hung out with a fair amount while still in London and who like a great deal – came to the Standard off the back of eminently readable books on Samuel Johnson, new words and, er, bluffing your way through something you know nothing about. :-)

Similarly, Libby Purves came to the Times from, er, her columns in the Times, her weekly Wednesday R4 show, Mittwoch, on which she'd regularly interview actors and directors, and off the back of an apparently prodigious theatre-going habit and friendship with Christopher Green of Duckie, which at least made her look a bit cool.

Whilst (although I'll confess now the same elephant in the room feeling as everyone else about the number of stars Purves hands out) I think both appointments have probably had a positive effect on the general perception of the mainstream critical landscape (in short, Purves isn't old or male and Hitchings isn't a tosser), they do also mark the largest step yet into the phenomenon of getting name writers rather than people who had already done a bit of time as a theatre critic.

Last time this conversation came up, Susannah Clapp said she remembered getting the same sort of comment when she started at the Observer's theatre critic ten years ago, remarking, “No one's born a theatre critic, are they?” Which struck me at the time as a fair enough comment. It now occurs to me that people can have smaller versions of the same job first, though. No; one might not be born a “theatre critic”, but having First String thrust upon one isn't the only other option.

And this is where the debate about what constitutes a “professional” critic really gets interesting.

We all know what people mean when they say a “professional” critic. It's someone who gets paid for being a critic, right? This is the point where the argument about the “Professional” vs the “Blogger” starts to fall apart.

When Michael wrote his piece in 2007, he could at least lean, heavily, on the fact that whatever you thought of the professional critics of the day (specifically, those of the Guardian, Times, Telegraph and Standard) they had at least, if absolutely nothing else, put in a staggering amount of time in the service what they were doing. Well over a century between them. Probably going on for two. And it's hard not to respect that.

I should say at this point that none of this is aimed at Henry or Libby. Because of the Times paywall I've barely even read enough of Libby's work to be able to characterise it – other than noting its unusually glass-4/5-full stance (something which I might get onto sometime if I have time).

But elsewhere there are more dubious appointments. One thinks immediately of Quentin Letts, Tim Walker and Christopher Hart. All three are, in the most technical sense of the word, “professional critics”. What they write is “professional theatre criticism”. Automatically. They don't have to write well. They don't have to write insightfully. They don't even have to write accurately. And nonetheless they are professional theatre critics. Indeed they might appear to hold theatre in contempt and review it solely as a means to express their contempt, but their arts editors have appointed them and so they are professional critics.

[& My heart is in the coffin there with theatre criticism, And I must pause till it come back to me. etc.]

That is part one of Why British Theatre Criticism is being gradually rotted away to nothing.

The kernel of part two lies in the hands of the arts editors, editors and owners of newspapers.

The generously viewed crux/problem is: far fewer people can see any given piece of theatre than can read a book, buy and album, see a film or watch TV. The horrible truth is, you'd need to tour any performance for the better part of a year, selling out 1,000 seater venues every night, to even get the same viewing figures as a badly received TV show. As such, even if it's a review of some utter shit, the TV review will be understood to have more reach, more “relevance” and more connection with readers than the most intelligent consideration possible of the best piece of theatre ever made (obv. both judgements subjective anyway, but...).

The less generous view is that the British press is by and large anti-art, anti-intellectual, horribly right-wing and parochial in the extreme. As such one could start to feel that even if theatre reviews were ever given enough space, that space seems increasingly likely be given to an idiot philistine so that they had more words with which to take the piss.

As such, on the bright side, we do now at least have a situation where the term “professional theatre critic” is being devalued so quickly and to such an extent that there is no reason in the world why one should believe a "professional" to be necessarily better qualified to write on the subject than someone who isn't being paid money.

Which is more or less what most people with half a brain said four years ago. But it's nice that the owners of newspapers have decided to fast-track the proof.

[Edit: that ending is monstrously ungracious. I should add in that in the main, the critics I met were a lovely bunch. They were also intelligent, perceptive, sensitive, and sometimes great writers - and almost all of them seem to be criminally under-rated by their employers.]


Jon Bradfield said...

Really interesting piece so it feels reductive to comment on your small direct question but: I think the problem with 'blogosphere' is the irksome redundant second 'o'. Blogsphere has more dignity somehow.

There's also the sphere part which implies separation and selfsustainance and ignores those parts of blogdom that interact with other media or formats: theatre writing being a good example.

Andrew Haydon said...

@Jon Bradfield - sorry for the delay in coming back to you. Yes, I think both those observations are right. I dunno, I suppose the reason "..osphere" stuck is that it does annoyingly capture the slight potential for 'in-a-bubble' conversations and the faintly futuristic-yet-preposterous way this could all be viewed. Hmmm..

Postcard Printing said...

I agree with Jon, "Blogsphere" definitely has more class.