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Dickens of an anniversary

By • West End
Two hundred years a novelist, sixty years a queen, forty years a critic: the anniversary waltz comes round with a special vengeance tomorrow, 7 February 2012, when all three milestones are celebrated.

Charles Dickens was born on this date in 1812, Her Majesty the Queen acceded to the monarchy (her father, King George VI, actually died on 6 February 1952)... and I wrote my first theatre review in 1972.

I was barely out of short trousers when the arts editor and senior critic of the Financial Times,  B A ("Freddie") Young, despatched me to the Round House (today it's the Roundhouse) to review a show called Lila the Divine Game, performed by the Bauls of Bengal.                                                                      

My instructions were clear. I had to be at the Round House in good time for an 8pm start (no early kick-offs in those days), stay in my seat for the duration of the show, exit smartly and find a cab to take me to Bracken House, the FT's headquarters hard by St Paul's Cathedral, find the back entrance and ascend to the second floor.

I then had to find a chap on the news desk, Kevin Henriques, the arts sub, who would show me to a typewriter in the arts office. There, I had to write one paragraph per sheet, which was quadruplicated in different colours: one for the sub, one for me, one for the editor and one for the printer. The printer's copy was taken by Kevin to the basement where my jewelled prose was set in hot metal.

Miraculously, or so it seemed to me, the review duly appeared the next morning: "Three refugees from the Living Theatre have been to India and returned with a guru, a yogi, a sitar disciple of Ravi Shankar and a radiant, enchanting group called the Bauls of Bengal..." I enjoyed the show, once I got over the slight sense of cultural alienation: "One felt like an orthodox Jew attending a Roman Catholic High Mass sung in Latin," I pontificated, having likened the sound of a sitar to a dentist's drill or the wailing of bagpipes.

Within a week I was on the fringe and lunchtime theatre beat, reviewing Brecht's In the Jungle of the Cities at the Half Moon, a wonderfully atmospheric converted synagogue (now a pub) in Alie Street in Mile End, very near my birthplace; a previously unperformed play by Lord Byron back at the Round House as a late night extra; Nigel Hawthorne in a play by food writer Colin Spencer at the Soho Poly (fore-runner of the Soho Theatre, then lodged in a basement near the BBC); and a Cockney knees-up at Stratford East, The Londoners, in the last days of Joan Littlewood with a clutch of new songs by Lionel Bart.

The die for me, professionally, was cast. I started reading play scripts for the Royal Court and somehow extricated myself from a teaching job in Canning Town and the odd engagement as a (not very good) restaurant and theatre pianist. I complemented my FT work with reviewing for Plays and Players, a magazine (now no more, alas) which I edited for a few years from 1975.

It all seems a long time ago. But then again, it often seems like yesterday. How quickly we've moved through the internet age to this transitional phase of free comment, tweeting, blogging and rampant opinion without too much justification. Everyone's a critic, as Mark Shenton is fond of saying, but I was always taught that you had to earn the right to be a critic.

More importantly than that, you had to have something worth saying and, even more importantly again than that, the ability to say it reasonably well. So when I go and talk to yet another bunch of American students this lunchtime, I shall be reiterating the cardinal rule of criticism: see everything you can and write as much as you can wherever you can. That's the only way to do it. And the internet gives so many opportunities these days: just go and write better than anyone else on it.  

When I started out as a critic I used to joke that perhaps, one day, I'd find myself a proper job. It was only after several months that I realised that I had already done that. So, cheers to me. And, incidentally, to Simon Callow, one of the first actors I ever reviewed, who has just published a magnificent book about Charles Dickens and the theatre.

And not forgetting Her Majesty. Gawd bless yer, mum, as we used to say dahn the East End, and I certainly must have burbled when her coronation carriage passed along the top of Jubilee Street, where we lived, or so I fancied, waving my little Union Jack, on 2 June 1953.


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