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Michael Coveney: Critics come full Circle in centenary bash

It was a suitably double-edged occasion, the Critics Circle Centenary Awards ceremony in the Barbican yesterday lunchtime: Ed Vaizey, under secretary of state for culture in the current government, pointed out that the Circle's inception in 1913 coincided with the passing of the ancient monuments act in parliament.

A few ancient monuments were indeed in evidence, none more so than a very merry Derek Malcolm, distinguished biographer Garry O'Connor (my former colleague on the FT), veteran music critics David Murray and Geoffrey Norris, and The Observer's estimable film critic Philip French, soon to be 80, who announced his retirement at the weekend.

Malcolm, to his great credit, was berating anyone who suggested that some on-line critics were less than the real deal, though all present seemed critically aware of the fact that we are living in a transitional period of adjustment to the new media and the decline of traditional outlets in print. The other serious issue that the Circle must address, though, is the one of critics writing for nothing, or negligible fees. The rules of engagement are in dire need of overhauling.

O'Connor revealed that he's writing a biography of Derek Jacobi. And French was hailed by film section nominee Danny Boyle as a critic with a pitiless mind and a kind eye; French had supported Danny's first movie, Shallow Grave, before it arrived in the UK, probably (he thought) at Cannes.

He then said, even more interestingly, that he had never met Philip before this day. And this added to the piquancy of Max Stafford-Clark's speech, receiving the drama section's award, which touched on the dangers of consorting with critics.

Max - to whom Danny also paid tribute as his mentor at the Royal Court, where he was one of his assistants - recounted how he carried the physically disadvantaged Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson (a childhood polio victim) up five flights of stairs so that he could review his London debut - in what is now the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs - with a play by Stanley Eveling he had first directed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.

"I knew," said Max, "that, when the lapel of his tweed jacket brushed my cheek that he couldn't possibly give me a bad review."

Nor did he. But in commenting no further, beyond reporting Hobson's contention that the whole of London should flock to this play (which had seating for 60 people) - and they did, effectively launching Max's remarkable career - the director pointed up the essentially tricky nature of this social overlap.

Even more movingly, as a former athlete and rugby player who has been incapacitated by a debilitating stroke, he now claimed "raspberry" affiliation with his critical nemesis ("raspberry," he explained, was an element in the rhyming slang for raspberry ripple, cripple, one defined for him by punk singer Ian Dury, who wrote the songs for Max's great production of Caryl Churchill's Serious Money).

Other senior artists who were honoured as centurion critical icons were the late, great conductor Colin Davis, the Tate director Nicholas Serota (absent on fund-raising duties in America) and legendary founding director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Peter Wright, now aged 85, who said that  "new brooms may sweep clean but you need old ones to get into the corners."

Max Stafford-Clark said that he was delighted to give Trevor Nunn and Howard Davies a day off in accepting his award - though he stopped short of mentioning his true rival, Peter Hall, who transformed and radicalised our 20th century theatre almost single-handedly - and then really cheered me up by saying that his introduction to the Royal Court was facilitated by a warm review in The Observer by my dear friend, and one of many fine female critics on The Observer down the years, Mary Holland.

The proceedings were graciously compered in the Barbican's Conservatory by Janet Suzman, who pointed out that what all artists craved was not good reviews, necessarily (though they were not averse to them), but a sustained level of informative and stimulating discussion. And no-one was about to disagree with that.

Barbican general manager Nick Kenyon concurred with her sentiments, but might have made a bit more, I feel, than he did, about his progression from being an FT music critic to an arts panjandrum; and was this necessarily a consummation devoutly to be wished? One of the best things about Nick as an arts administrator is that he retains his respect for critics and indeed suggested that they were an essential part of whatever he put on at the Barbican. 

Other notable attendees included the delightful deputy mayor Munira Mirza, Alan Davey of the Arts Council, but not, alas, Ed Vaizey's mum, Marina, the art critic with whom I desk-shared on the FT when I first joined the Circle in 1974 as a lad in short trousers. Dame Janet proposed a toast to the next hundred years and drank from the Dickens Goblet which was presented to the Circle in 1916 by Sir Seymour Hicks who was first given it in 1901 by Dickens's sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, as a tribute to his performance as Scrooge.

Thus doth the whirligig of time bring in his revengers, and we all dispersed wondering wistfully if such a convention could ever be arranged, or even contemplated, in another hundred years' time.

If not, then our theatre would surely be as dead as the list of past members. In honour of the best of them, Kenneth Tynan, I sported the tie I bought at the home of bull-fighting, Ronda; Tynan was an aficionado of the ring and a critic who saw his job as that of a war correspondent, not a necrologist.

The main thing about him, of course, was that he was a brilliant writer. And it should be the aspiration of anyone who writes about the theatre to try and do so even half as well as he did, having first declared their hand by immersing themselves in the theatre not because they want to be a critic, but because they love the theatre. There's no other way, in print or online. Tynan didn't choose to write about the theatre. The theatre chose him. And he responded by writing with skill, passion, wit and no hint of compromise.


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