20 Questions With…Toby Young
Date: 25 October 2004
Drama critic Toby Young – who this week takes to the stage in the play based on his best-selling memoir How to Lose Friends & Alienate People - feels the fear as he lifts the curtain on Julie Burchill, Sheridan Morley & Vanity Fair.
Toby Young (pictured) abandoned his PhD in Philosophy at Cambridge to pursue a career in journalism. Over the years, his many freelance credits have included a range of national newspapers and men’s magazines. He is currently the theatre critic of the Spectator and the restaurant critic for ES magazine.
Early in his career, Young founded the bi-monthly Modern Review (‘Low Culture for Highbrows’) with Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman. After editing it for four years, however, he folded the title, without the consent of Burchill, who was hoping to change the magazine’s political slant with the help of her lover and contributor Charlotte Raven. The move prompted a very public and drawn-out row between Burchill and Young.
In 1995, Young left London for New York to become a contributing editor at glossy bible Vanity Fair. He hoped to follow in the footsteps of other famous British journalists— like Alistair Cooke, Tina Brown and Anna Wintour — who’d taken Manhattan by storm. Instead, within the space of two years, so the story goes, “he was fired from Vanity Fair, banned from the most fashionable bars in the city and couldn't get a date for love or money. Even the local AA group wanted nothing to do with him.”
Luckily for Young, now settled back in the UK, he turned his embarrassing experiences into a best-selling comic memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, for which, Burchill declared, “I'll rot in hell before I give that little bastard a quote for his book”.
With the help of playwright Tim Fountain, the book was turned into a one-man stage play, which premiered at London’s Soho Theatre in 2003 with Jack Davenport playing Young. This week How to Lose Friends and Alienate People transfers to the West End’s Arts Theatre, starring Young himself.
Date & place of birth
The 17th of October 1963. I was born on a pig farm in Buckinghamshire, the closest town is Olney. My sister used to say that I had been swapped with a pig at birth.
Lives now in…
Shepherd’s Bush, west London.
Education / Why did you want to become a journalist?
I went to Oxford as an undergraduate and studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics), and then I went to Harvard and then I went to Cambridge, but the only degree I actually got was from Oxford. Both my parents dabbled in journalism. My father started which? magazine, was a regular contributor to the Guardian and wrote about two dozen books in the course of his life. My mother wrote two novels. At one stage, she was the literary editor of The Listener and the editor of an educational magazine. So I guess it was in the blood. I quite liked the idea of having a soapbox and I liked the idea of the life - you know, this slightly kind of rackety existence, drinking heavily and not worrying about anything after you’ve filed your story.
First big break
I suppose my first big break was when Julie Burchill happened to move in next door to me. In 1984 when she left her first husband, Tony Parsons, she moved in with Cosmo Landesman in the house next door to where I then lived with my parents in Islington. I was at number 10 and they were at number 8.
Career highlights to date
I received the last ever writ by Robert Maxwell in 1991, I was sued by Elizabeth Hurley in 1994 and then I was sued by Harold Evans in 1998. If rich and powerful people use the law to try and muzzle you, then you know you’re doing something right. Also, I suppose, being hired by Vanity Fair and then being fired by Vanity Fair.
Favourite stage actors/actresses
I really like Alex Jennings, Nicholas Le Prevost, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best. Partly because I enjoyed particular productions they were in: Nicholas Le Prevost in Much Ado About Nothing, Alex Jennings in My Fair Lady and Stuff Happens, Kelly Reilly in After Miss Julie. And Eve Best was a revelation. I didn’t like her at all in Three Sisters, but I thought she was mesmerising in Mourning Becomes Electra. I think a great performance relies as much on the playwright as it does on the actor. So often I’ve found as a theatre critic that, when I imagine I’m seeing a fabulous performance, what I’m really seeing is an incredibly well-written part. A good example is This is Our Youth. I thought Jake Gyllenhaal was just fantastic, but when I saw it again with Casey Affleck, I thought he was pretty good, too. I think it’s very hard for an actor, however good, to shine in a badly written part. By contrast, there are some parts that are so well written they are almost actor proof. Unfortunately, the part of Toby Young in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is not one of them.
The usual suspects – Sam Mendes, Michael Blakemore and Trevor Nunn would be the top three. Again, because I just really like things they’ve done. With Nunn, I particularly enjoyed those musicals that started life at the National, like Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady, and his Lady from the Sea with Natasha Richardson at the Almeida. I really liked Blakemore’s Three Sisters and Democracy. And I thought Mendes’ Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night at the Donmar and his Gypsy, which I saw in New York, were fantastic. I like directors who are real showmen and who understand how to entertain as well as bring everything out that’s in the play.
Terence Rattigan, Tom Stoppard, Kenneth Lonergan, August Wilson, Richard Greenberg. Who else do I really like? Yes, Patrick Marber. In fact, I bumped into him yesterday and asked him if he had any tips for me, because he’s appeared on the stage himself. He said, “Try not to sweat, it can be really unnerving”. I’m sure that’s absolutely excellent advice, but how do you not sweat? I’m a sweaty person, I sweat sitting in the stalls so I don’t know what kind of mess I’m going to make on stage.
Favourite play & musical
My favourite musical is probably My Fair Lady. The plays I’ve enjoyed most since I’ve been working as a theatre critic are Jitney, Three Sisters, Much Ado About Nothing, Uncle Vanya, Democracy, The Price and Arcadia, which I saw on tour. From this year, I think probably The Goat. But favourite play of all time, Hamlet.
Why do you think theatre is important?
I didn’t think it was important when I first started as a critic. I never actually said “I hate theatre”, but I didn’t by any means love it. However, since I started the job, I have become completely stagestruck and now like nothing more than going to a really good play. For instance, for my birthday, as a special treat, my wife and I went off to Stratford to see Toby Stephens in Hamlet. Five years ago, that’s the last thing I would have done for my birthday. It doesn’t matter how sceptical you are - if something is really good, it’s going to win you over. You could be Oliver Cromwell sitting there and something like Jitney is still going to convert you instantly to the virtues of theatre. In some ways, if you are sceptical to begin with, the experience is even more powerful because being so transported is the last thing you’d expect. This sounds really wanky and pretentious, but I do think, of all the narrative arts, theatre can be the most powerful. The problem is that writing a good play is harder than writing a good novel or a good film or a good television serial. In conjuring up the world of the play, all the playwright and the director and company are doing is really only providing 5% of the experience. It’s up to the audience to bring the remaining 95%. With movies, it’s probably 75% on screen and 25% in the audience, and with a novel maybe 50/50. Theatre, more than any other narrative art form, depends upon the audience’s imagination in order to bring it to life. That’s why, when the audience is stimulated in the right way and it works, it’s such an incredibly powerful experience.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Give producers tax breaks so they can lower prices. The prices for Fully Committed and How to Lose Friends start at £15, but I think one of the reasons the West End isn’t faring as well as it might be is that prices are so high. Then again, I suppose if you do artificially lower prices, the good things will sell out immediately.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Didn’t Woody Allen say he wanted to be reincarnated as Warren Beatty’s fingertips? I think I’d be happy just to be Warren Beatty for a day.
David Copperfield by Dickens, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.
Variety, the Internet Movie Database, the New York Times’ website, Guardian Unlimited. They’re all very obvious, aren’t they? I quite like Googlefight.com, where you can plug in two people’s names and see who gets the most hits. I know Whatsonstage.com - I checked it to read about my show the other day. I’m also just about to relaunch my own website, including an archive of all of my theatre reviews, which is at www.tobyyoung.co.uk.
How did you become a theatre critic?
I was doing a column for the Spectator called “No Life”. When I got married, Boris Johnson (the editor) said I couldn’t legitimately claim to have no life any more, but he didn’t want to let me go so instead he made me the theatre critic. I think he was looking for a new theatre critic, not because Sheridan Morley was particularly poor but because he’d been there for ten years and ten years is a pretty good innings for any columnist in any publication. I think Boris just thought it was time for a change.
Did Sheridan Morley take the news well?
Sherry took it incredibly badly and has been taking pot shots at me one way or another ever since. But my worst experience with theatre colleagues was not to do with him. At the press night of Uncle Vanya at the Donmar, I was seated next to Rhoda Koenig (formerly a critic with the Independent). I know this guy in New York who used to be a friend of hers so I said to her, “Is your name Rhoda?” She said yes. I said. “Hi, I’m Toby Young.” She said (rather sniffily), “I know who you are.” I said, “I believe we have a mutual friend.” She said, “We don’t have a mutual friend so much as a friend in common.” I said, “What’s the difference?” She said, “Look it up. Better yet, don’t talk to me. Don’t you realise I don’t want to speak to you? I find the fact that you are doing theatre criticism an absolute disgrace.” And then she moved her bum along the bench as far as she could. I’d never met her before, I’d never written anything about her.
How would you describe the role of the critic?
To stay awake. I think being a theatre critic is the equivalent of being the royal food taster - you are there to absorb the poison in order to save other lives.
Have you ever received any backlash from a review you’ve written?
After reviewing Zoe Wanamaker in Boston Marriage, I was on Loose Ends with her and Ned Sherrin asked if I’d seen the play. Wanamaker said, very imperiously, “Yes, Toby, do tell us what it’s like. You see, I haven’t seen it, I’m only in it.” It wasn’t exactly a put-down, just a bloody queer thing to say. On the whole, I think actors and directors are very good about not responding to critics, which is sensible - you always look a bit foolish doing so. I’ve certainly felt the lash of my colleagues. When Jack Davenport appeared as me in my play the first time round last year, Lyn Gardner (from the Guardian) said I had the charisma of a hamster and compared me to Neil Hamilton. Of course, Jack doesn’t look anything like me. When Tim Fountain (who adapted the book) and I first approached him, I kind of jokingly asked whether he’d be willing to shave his head. He said “oh, absolutely”, but the topic never came up again after that. I mean, it was the most flattering bit of casting since Colin Firth played Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch. For the planned film version, Jake Gyllenhaal’s management company has been in touch with the producer and asked to be kept informed of the status of the project so he hasn’t been cast yet but he has shown an interest.
What prompted you to write about your embarrassing experiences in New York?
I spent five years in New York and achieved almost nothing. If anything, I had gone backwards in my career. I’d started out in ‘95 as a Vanity Fair editor, and by the end, I was road-testing sex toys for men’s magazines. I wanted to claw something back. I suppose that’s partly why I wrote the book, I wanted to extract something useful. I hoped it would be successful, but I had no idea it would be as successful as it has been. I’m fairly pessimistic by nature as a way of shielding myself from disappointment.
How did the book come to be turned into a stage play?
I initiated it. I approached Tim Fountain, who’d initially approached me to see if I’d be interested in doing a cameo in his earlier one-woman play Julie Burchill Is Away. I suggested to Tim that my book might make a good one-man show and he said that had occurred to him too. Sally Greene (of Old Vic Productions) was thinking about optioning my book for the stage, and she arranged for Tim and I to present a workshop of the work-in-progress to a crowd of producers and people involved in the Old Vic and Young Vic. We originally wrote How to Lose Friends as a ten-minute two-hander, which Tim and I performed. I played myself and Tim played himself and every other part. It went over okay in the Old Vic rehearsal room, but as soon as Sally Greene saw it, she completely lost interest. We then did it for a charity thing and it went down really badly - everyone started talking while we were on stage. I then decided it was a bad idea to try and be in it myself, so we turned it into a one-hander which an actor could perform. Then we got in touch with a producer called Olivia Wingate and we approached Jack who said he’d do it and that was how it happened at Soho last year.
Why did you decide to take to the stage yourself this time around?
Very good question! The show did well at Soho. In fact, it sold out before it opened. Of course, it’s just a 150-seat venue and it only ran for three weeks but, nevertheless, it did well enough to persuade me that it could work in the West End. I got together with this commercial producer called Ian Osborne and we realised, in order to take it into a West End venue, we’d have to pair it up with another short play. Given that How to Lose Friends is only an hour long, we can’t charge more than a maximum of £25 a ticket. With those prices, you can’t afford to pay the rent on a West End theatre so, what we had to do was find another play we could share the space and the rent with. We started looking around for suitable short plays. At one point, we approached the Arts to see if we could go on after Happy Days when that was running, but Peter Hall nipped that proposal in the bud. Julie Burchill Is Away was always an option, but we thought two plays about journalists would suffer being put together. There were so few other good short plays around, I wanted to commission a companion. I tried to persuade Candace Bushnell, who’s spent a lot of time here, to write a Sex in the City-style one-hander set in London, but unfortunately she didn’t have time. I then approached Plum Sykes to see if she’d like to turn Bergdorf Blondes into a solo show, but she wasn’t that interested.
I actually saw Fully Committed in New York back in 1999 so, when it went into the Menier in London, I went again and thought it was perfect. Edward Snape (who runs the Arts) was in the audience that same night. He and David Babani (of the Menier) and I got together afterwards and talks progressed. Eventually, Ed had a slot. He said he was happy for Fully Committed to transfer as is with Mark Setlock but that, if we were going to do How to Lose Friends, we had to find an actor of sufficient stature to play me. Jack couldn’t do it again because he’s doing Pirates of the Caribbean 2. We approached a lot of other people, including Tom Hollander who couldn’t, and we got quite far with one particular big star, but we couldn’t sort him out before the deadline. So Ed Snape said, “Look, the only way I’m going to maintain this booking is if Toby does it himself.” It was his idea, not mine, and initially I said no. The only way we could even get a week’s extension to try and nail this star was if I agreed to do it if the star didn’t. I agreed, thinking we would get this guy to come in. And then the days fucking passed and we couldn’t get him. I can’t tell you who it is because we’re hoping he’ll step in after my six weeks and I’ve had to sign a confidentiality agreement. If I hadn’t stepped in, we would have lost the booking and nothing would have happened for us or Fully Committed. We’ve been trying to get this set up for 18 months and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. So I thought, fuck it, I’ll just do it for six weeks, and then, if it does well, someone else can step in.
Are you scared? How do you think your fellow critics will react?
Yes, I am quite scared. The only other acting I’ve done was as an extra in Another Country. That was 21 years ago and I was fired after a week. Even if you watch the entire movie in freeze frame, you don’t see me. I’m trying not to think about it. As for the critics, I think they’ll have a field day. I’m hoping that they won’t be as vicious as they otherwise might be because it’ll be embarrassing when they have to keep bumping into me two or three times a week at other opening nights. I’m sure that’ll make very little difference actually. And, if you are a theatre critic, you dish it out so you’ve got to suck it up. It would be very unseemly for me to complain.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m just done a two-book deal with Time Warner Books UK to write a novel and a sequel to How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. I’m currently working on the novel. It’s set in Los Angeles - I went there to research it for three months earlier this year. One thing that helped me decide to appear in the play is that I haven’t got much material for the sequel to How to Lose Friends. My life’s been pretty good ever since I got back from New York. I got married, had a baby, the book was quite successful, my wife’s pregnant again. Everything’s looking up, so I thought I needed a disaster in my life to furnish me with some new material.
- Toby Young was speaking to Terri Paddock
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People opens at the West End’s Arts Theatre on 28 October 2004 (previews from 15 October), with evening performances at 9.00pm. From next week, it will run concurrently with earlier evening performances of Fully Committed.