Michael Coveney: Criticism collapses on a wave of dissent and indifference

The announcement that the Independent on Sunday is closing its arts section will send tremors through the Critics Circle, if not shock waves through the nation. It’s perhaps a signal of the dislocation between critics and the public that the idea of having no Kate Bassett column to read on a Sunday in future will annoy me intensely but is unlikely to bring people on to the streets in protest.

Michael Coveney
Michael Coveney
© Dan Wooller

Kate is a fine, sensible critic, but her position on the Sindy has always been perilous. When the paper was launched in 1990, they hired the formidable and omniscient Irving Wardle from The Times as its theatre critic (in the same reshuffle, I went from the Financial Times to the Observer, where Wardle had once been deputy critic to Kenneth Tynan).

Soon afterwards, the cost-cutting owners of an instantly money-losing enterprise decided they didn’t want to pay a staff salary, so Irving’s contract was terminated and Robert Butler hired on a cheaper freelance basis. When Robert moved on, Kate – who had made a mark with some sharp and colourful reviewing on both The Times and the Telegraph – replaced him twelve years ago, presumably on a similar sort of deal.

This is a strange and dangerous time for theatre critics. The Sunday Times doesn’t have a staff critic as such, though the wittily reactionary Christopher Hart contributes a lead column most weeks, supported by a bevy of brief paragraph merchants. Only Michael Billington on the Guardian and Susannah Clapp on the Observer seem like constant, reliable critical voices, with Libby Purves paddling furiously and effectively to make up for lost time on The Times and Paul Taylor raising a languid, often brilliant, analytical voice in the daily Independent. Charles Spencer seems to be firing on fewer cylinders on the Telegraph, where Dominic Cavendish writes more and more (and very well) alongside him.

The Independent newspapers, owned by Russian mogul Evgeny Lebedev, who also owns the reanimated free sheet Evening Standard (where Henry Hitchings steadies the critical boat), are cutting jobs all over the place, and the biggest shock is the imminent departure of television critic Tom Sutcliffe, a superb writer and the Indy’s first arts editor, who has tweeted: “So, after a long marriage, it’s been decided that the Independent and I should start seeing other people again. Back in the game…” (Or perhaps he meant, “Back on the game…”)

So that sounds like another staff salary saved. But you don’t find Tom Sutcliffes growing on trees. Good critics are rare and always need protection within their own newspapers (that used to be the arts editor’s job) and, increasingly nowadays, the tsunami of rudeness and insult emanating from the twitterati.

It’s an ironic side effect of the liberation of the communication airwaves that the professional critic – someone who’s earned the right to his or her opinion because a) he or she has something valuable to say and b) knows how to say it – is being swamped in a culture of ignorance.

It’s no mere coincidence that Mary Beard, the classical scholar and new television star, has silenced an internet troll by naming and shaming him (he’s apologised for his offensive remarks) and that the social media generally are being advised by the police to crack down on the rape threats and other offences committed by an increasing number of users.

Another brilliant critic and commentator, Charlie Brooker, announced yesterday that he was standing down from his weekly column (for now) in the Guardian partly because he’s been recently overwhelmed by “the sheer amount of jabber in the world,” cleverly adding that he was also contributing to this vast cloud of blah every seven days.

But the point about Brooker is that he’s above the blah because he’s a good writer, and the more blah there is, the more we shall need the Brookers and Sutcliffes and indeed Bassetts to sort it all out and cut to the bone and the quick.

Meanwhile, Tim Walker goes his merry way in his diary column in the Telegraph, boasting of his forthcoming guest appearance as a waiter in Top Hat, whose producer, Kenny Wax, feels Tim has the right sort of class and distinction to grace a show that is a pale and provincial shadow of the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie original.

Yesterday, Tim gleefully recounted the outburst of an outraged performer (I’ve no idea who it was) who suggested on the internet that my own credentials as a critic were invalid as I had no experience of acting on the stage (which is not strictly true; I know very well how bad an amateur actor I was).

It’s an odd notion that someone who writes about football should have played in the Premier League in order to be an authentic critic. The best football writers – Geoffrey Green, Brian Glanville, James Lawton – had no such experience. And anyone who watches exceptional ex-football players such as Alan Shearer or Michael Owen pontificate on television knows instantly that they cannot string two or three words together, let alone a few paragraphs.

Still, I look forward to the transformation of Tim Walker’s Sunday Telegraph review column once he has been through the fire of treading the boards and tripping the light fantastic in Top Hat. Who knows, a great new theatre critic could be waiting in the wings…