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Michael Coveney: 'Secret toff' Sir Dominic Maxwell succeeds Libby as Times critic

By • London
Michael Coveney
Michael Coveney
© Dan Wooller

The strange business of Libby Purves' enforced retreat as chief theatre critic at The Times is no way demystified by the news that Dominic Maxwell, her colleague and theatre editor, will replace her. The big surprise is that although Maxwell breaks the Oxbridge succession of Irving Wardle, Benedict Nightingale and Libby herself, he turns out to be a top drawer toff!

So that's three top flight Old Etonians in the ranks - Henry Hitchings, the Rt Hon Robert Gore-Langton and now Sir Dom - enough to gladden the hearts of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, surely, and guarantee yet more good reviews for OE pin-ups Dominic West, Eddie Redmayne and Damien Lewis? Will the Morning Star and Tribune retaliate? What about the workers, guv?

The cry for more black or Asian theatre critics, let alone women (well provided for now, I'm glad to say), will soon be usurped by a renewed demand for some non-posh scribblers in the stalls. Ian Shuttleworth, who job-shares the critic's post at the Financial Times with Sarah Hemming, has the right idea: he sported his "Still Hate Thatcher" T-shirt at the Edinburgh Festival this year and bore another slogan on his voluminous chest at the Much Ado opening last week: "We're not being governed; we're being asset-stripped;" are these FT leader headlines, I wonder?

Yes comrades, sounds like we're entering a new phase in the good old class war, and the poshos are on the front foot. Turning to my Who's Who, I see that - to give him his full name - Sir Dominic James Maxwell Scott, fourteenth baronet in a line created in 1642, was born in 1968 (he's therefore 45) and educated at Eton and Sussex University. There are no professional credits listed, so it appears he's risen to this sudden eminence without trace.

But on the inside, we know he's been around, and writing really well, for years, first on Time Out - toffs on Time Out! - and for some years now as comedy critic (how funny is that?) and feature writer on The Times, where his mug shot usually appears above not a wing collar, not even a reversible one, but the sort of T-shirt-look favoured by middle-aged "trendy" Guardian columnists. He's almost indecently tall, too, which reminds me of something I once said about Ned Sherrin; that I'd rather there was a steep rake throughout the stalls instead of the one sat immediately in front of me - him.

Perhaps to calm myself down in all this turmoil, I snuck into the Saturday matinee of the play about innovative florist and 1930s fashionable icon Constance Spry at the Arts, Storm in a Flower Vase, which certainly helped to put things in perspective. Alan Strachan's jolly and technically efficient production of all-white aesthetics and Sapphic tendencies, with a stage full of arum lilies, a soothing performance from Penny Downie as the odiferous Connie and as much furniture shifting as flower arranging, seemed like an illicit treat in the circs.

But there, on the other side of the stalls, sat another Times critic, Sam Marlowe, visibly perturbed by all the goings on (not between Connie and the butch painter called Gluck, but back at HQ in Canary Wharf) and dressed for any social emergency in black leather and open-toed killer cocktail boots. She's been writing on The Times for twelve years now, but had her contract withdrawn some time ago and now writes on a freelance basis, paid by the piece.

What's happened is that, since the departure of the last editor, popular James Harding (who's now news editor at the BBC), the acting editor John Witherow (who has come across from the Sunday Times, which doesn't have an established staff theatre critic, either), has intervened in the appointments business after having led Libby Purves to believe that he didn't much like three-star reviews, hoping only to see the two-star or four-star (and, presumably, the odd one-star and high-five) brand.

And that's it. Nothing about what the cultural priorities might be, how to extend national or European coverage, or curtail them, how to smarten up her act, or where to place the emphasis, for instance, on the fringe, how balance the demands of the Edinburgh Festival against those of newer, perhaps livelier, festivals in Manchester or at Latitude.

And though Sam said nothing of this, nor of Witherow, whom she doesn't know, it's clear the chain of command is broken and confused. There's an arts editor, a reviews editor, a theatre editor, a section editor, an on-line editor, and so on. In the old days, on broadsheets, there was a single arts editor who developed and protected his contributors, often against the overall editor himself. And appointed them, too, more or less. This led to stability and, more importantly, authority and continuity.

The authority of any critical post will be diminished if an editor changes the incumbent like a pair of socks, or as often as Andrew Lloyd Webber changes his creative collaborators. Good Lord, W A Darlington stuck around on the Telegraph for 48 years, the noble Michael Billington OBE has held fast at the Guardian for over 40 (count 'em) years and the peerless Irving Wardle, who succeeded A V Cookman in 1963, was in the stalls for The Times until he left of his own free will to join the new Independent on Sunday in 1990.

It is well worth reading, incidentally, Wardle's fascinating and extremely long testimony of his critical career in the latest issue of Intelligent Life, the new magazine owned by the Economist; it gives an in-depth low down of his critical dealings with John Osborne and Harold Pinter, with Peter Brook, Joan Littlewood and Robert Lepage, with Binkie Beaumont and Donald Albery - and Alan Ayckbourn - that is the best possible argument for longevity and experience in a critic.

And at a time when quite a few critics in these tamely consensual days own up in public to being fogey-ish, anti-Brechtian, in love with old musicals or bent on entertainment (who isn't?), it's wonderfully bracing to encounter Irving's stubborn, contrarian streak, his leather-jacketed antipathy to all the false glitter and glad-handing at first nights.

This wasn't a pose, or a front; it was born of his lifelong career question of... what is theatre for? Crucially, of course, he came from Bolton, grammar school and two years of national service in the army, and identified totally, for a few years at least, with John Osborne and the broom-sweeping arrival of George Devine's English Stage Company at the Royal Court.

The news that an Old Etonian now has his feet under the desk would probably amuse him rather than upset him, further proof that nothing has really changed after all, despite Osborne, and that the wheels of privilege and elitism may grind exceeding slow these days, but grind on they still do. And, to be fair, Dominic Maxwell - who claimed in a Standard diary story on Friday to have once appeared on TV's Swap Shop in 1981 as "Erston S James," thereby laying another false trail - is the last chap you might finger as an Etonian anyway.

Tags: Libby PurvesThe TimesDominic Maxwell


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