Michael Coveney: Critical awards and lasting legacies

Reflections on this year’s Critics’ Circle Awards, and some great critics of the past

The Critics' Circle awards at the Prince of Wales on Tuesday were the usual mix of high spirits, well-judged sycophancy and self-promotion, with Mike Bartlett, winner of the best play award for King Charles III, virtually speechless, especially in the wake of Dominic Cavendish's valiant effort, in iambic pentameters, to make an appropriate tribute. Bartlett, much taller than you'd expect, simply said, "Thank you". These awards originated in 1989, continuing the voting system in the much-missed Plays and Players magazine which always printed each critic's votes along with a 250-word summary of reasoning. That transparency gave the awards their real authority, a quality only partially redeemed by the critics themselves saying something on the podium about the award-winners.

So although this year's list is a very good one – apart from giving nods to Golem for its design (this irritatingly cute, overpraised show from 1927 mixes animation with diluted Russian constructivism in a sort of whimsical Playschool aesthetic) and Gypsy (there were enough very good new musical theatre shows to acknowledge without approving a tried and tested masterpiece – "the second act tails off into mere brilliance" said Tynan) – it's slightly frustrating not to know who voted for what and for whom. So at least I can give you my list: my best play was Mr Burns at the Almeida, my best musical – by a mile – was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, my best actor Tim Pigott-Smith in the Bartlett, best actress Gemma Arterton in both The Duchess of Malfi (at the new candlelit Sam Wanamaker) and Made in Dagenham, best Shakespearean performance Michelle Terry in the RSC's Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado, best director Benedict Andrews for Streetcar at the Young Vic, best designer Bunny Christie for Made in Dagenham, most promising playwright Fiona Doyle for Coolatully at the Finborough and most promising newcomer the delightful Patsy Ferran for Blithe Spirit and Treasure Island.

Although Patsy showed up for the photo-shoot, she scooted away – something about a matinee at the National Theatre – before the ceremony itself and the chance to receive a certificate and bottle of bubbly from yours truly. Honestly, where's the girl's sense of priority? Who would choose an obligation to perform at the National Theatre over the opportunity to schmooze a roomful of critics by daylight? As I said in my citation, she's not the first to be outlandishly funny as the maid in Blithe Spirit, but she had a mimetic skill and physicality about her that was unique. Susannah Clapp spotted this, too, in her performance as Jim Hawkins – live as a basket of eels, smart as paint – in Treasure Island, noting that "her mixture of wistfulness and sprightliness and her light-as-a-feather movement makes her sometimes look like a tiny Charlie Chaplin." Susannah also applauded her witty elbows; she's the first actress since Maggie Smith to be complimented on those bony extrusions. Enough said. Except: after casting a shipload of female pirates, who'd bet against director Polly Findlay doing an all-girl As You Like It at the National later on this year? The National's first As You was all-boys, and Patsy Ferran would surely make an ideal androgyne of Rosalind.

It's good to be reminded of a distinguished former member of the Circle, Harold Hobson, in the re-published text of Peter Barnes's The Ruling Class, gleefully revived at the Trafalgar Studios by Jamie Lloyd, ending his second Trafalgar Transformed season. In his introduction to the play, first published in 1969, Hobson identified The Ruling Class as one of only four times in his long career (he succeeded James Agate on the Sunday Times in 1947 and retired in 1976) when he was unexpectedly faced with an explosive blaze of an entirely new talent of a very high order. The first three were Waiting for Godot, Look Back in Anger and The Birthday Party, all of which Hobson championed authoritatively against a backdrop of critical indifference and downright hostility (those were the days!).

What a strange-looking bunch of bods we now comprise in the Critics' Circle, nothing so much as a staff meeting in the performance arts faculty of a minor metropolitan university, with the odd flash of plumage from Georgina Brown (eloquently bigging up Helen McCrory as best actress as Medea at the NT) and an increasingly voluble Henry Hitchings (describing himself as a "fat Rory Kinnear" and praising Mark Strong as best actor in A View from the Bridge). No-one here to rival Tynan, let alone his fictional throwback antidote, the serpentine Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, played by George Sanders.

Of all the soft-voiced, two-faced, black-hearted, mean-minded, manipulative cads the cinema has thrown up, said novelist Anthony Quinn in the Guardian the other day, Addison DeWitt "is my favourite." Quinn, a former film critic himself, was meditating on the representation of critics in the fictional media – in Birdman, Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound ("Me and the lads have had a meeting in the bar; we've decided it's first-class entertainment, but if it goes beyond half past ten, it's self-indulgent"), Theatre of Blood – while drawing attention to his own new novel, Curtain Call, which features an over-the-hill critic, Jimmy Erskine, caught up in a murder mystery and society trap, whose lifestyle is not dissimilar to that of James Agate.

It's a terrific read, Curtain Call, and everything said about Erskine is sort of true about Agate, who dominated the airwaves and the newspapers before (and during) the last war (he was president of the Critics' Circle in 1938). He discovered and encouraged Kenneth Tynan. He lived life to the hilt, owned race-horses, kept a circle of fast gay friends in Brighton and London, employed two or three secretaries, reviewed new fiction, gave talks, went to concerts, gambled and drank, hob-nobbed with the musical, theatrical and political elite. He was Northern, brash, self-educated, Francophile (so was Hobson, who hailed from Sheffield and was crippled with polio) and probably insufferable.

His Ego diaries are among my most treasured possessions. I was bequeathed them by a former neighbour, a theatrical dresser who was once part of Agate's gang, who had asked me to help him clear out the apartment – and take what I wanted – of Agate's chief secretary, George Mathew. So I not only possess Agate's library, but also his first leather-bound Ego editions, personally signed by his publisher, Hamish Hamilton, and dotted with the great man's pencil annotations and corrections throughout. Anthony Quinn is right. These books need to be re-published. Meanwhile, he's getting on with his next novel which, apparently, features a character who is a thinly disguised Kenneth Tynan… thus does the Critics' Circle come full circle.