An interview with the legendary critic, Michael Billington, who has been reviewing plays since 1971, and is deeply concerned at the state of the British theatre.
On October 2, 1971, a young critic called Michael Billington sat in the crowded darkness of the Fortune Theatre. That night, he wrote his first review as chief theatre critic for the Guardian, and more than 50 years later, while retired from his weekly reviews, he’s still attending shows.
The beat has undergone several paradigm shifts in this time. Musicals became big money; the snub-nosed brutality of in-yer-face theatre has shocked and appalled in equal measure. Writers like Pinter, Churchill, Stoppard, Hare, and Bennett have transcended the fourth wall and moulded the national consciousness. The industry has opened its doors to new voices and new ways of thinking.
The practice of theatre criticism has ostensibly remained constant throughout. We diligently watch in the darkness, scribble a note or two then scuttle away to write furiously to meet a menacing deadline, avoiding eye contact with actors, directors, and writers who we assume want our guts for garters. But the art of reviewing plays has changed, many times over, and the only real constant has been Billington.
Is there any truth behind the idea of the ‘kingmaker critic’, whose opinion could make or break a production or a career?
It has long been true in New York for the obvious reason that there is one key newspaper: whoever is the critic of the New York Times has the rule of the roost. The diversity of newspapers in London meant that it was very hard for one individual to have power.
Having said that, I think there was a time when Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson had the power to make or break productions.
There are two reasons for this. One: how many people buy newspapers. In 1987, the national daily newspapers sold 15 million copies a day. In 2023, they sell around 4 million. So naturally, the power of the printed word has declined.
Secondly, Tynan and Hobson were writing when newspapers had weight. The daily papers were more transient, but the Sunday papers – the Sunday Times and the Observer – had a great cultural power; they were the deciders of theatre and film.
The other thing is that Tynan and Hobson both had a missionary zeal about them. I knew them both. Tynan wanted to bring the theatre in contact with life as it is lived. Hobson was a different animal, he was a religious man. He wasn’t so much looking for social change, so much as a spiritual evolution.
They were also present at a time when there was great change in theatre. 1955: the year of Waiting for Godot. How you react to Waiting for Godot is the key test for a critic. Not surprisingly, the overnight critics didn’t get it at all.
But Tynan endorses it. Hobson doesn’t just endorse it, he carries on a week by week campaign on its behalf. I remember that because I was at school reading the newspaper, and something he said is forever imprinted on my memory: he ended one of his columns by saying: ‘If you have only 15 shillings in the world, go and see Waiting for Godot. If you have 30 shillings, go and see it twice.’ A year later, Look Back in Anger opens. Hobson is more cautious. Tynan writes his review with that infamous line: ‘I couldn’t love anyone who didn’t love this play.’
Again, I remember being a schoolboy in the Midlands and thinking it is extraordinary that a play could have such an effect. I came down to London in 1957. I was going to a second house performance at eight o’clock on a Saturday. The first house performance came out, I stood outside looking at peoples’ faces to see if they had been changed. It sounds incredibly naïve and sentimental, but I did that. I wanted to see what effect this play had on people. If Tynan was right, they would come out as different human beings. Of course, they just looked like everyone else.
Were reviews longer in the 1950s and 1960s? Did that have an impact on the review itself?
If you look back at the Sunday Times and the Observer, you would think they had an exaggerated length in those days. Tynan had 800 words. Newsprint was scarce. The paper had to contain a lot. The point I’m making is that we revere the Sunday papers in a way we don’t now. But briefly, it would be unfair to say they had a huge amount of space. They had to cram a week’s theatregoing into 800 or 1000 words, which is not a lot.
Do you think that there is less power for individual critics? Or do we all have less critical sway as a totality?
I must be careful what I say given that I’m loyal to my newspaper. But the coverage of the arts has shrunk. It shrunk post-COVID. Pre-COVID, every paper had arts pages. The Guardian doesn’t have an arts page anymore. The print reviews are scattered through the news pages. During the pandemic, there was nothing opening, and the arts pages were dropped.
Theatre, I think, has also lost its premiere position. I would go back to the fifties when theatre was the dominant art form when it came to the papers. Now it’s different. Television. Film. Music. Those are regarded as the key arts. Theatre has lost its place in the pecking order.
But does the force of the television or film critic hold any sway? Or is it just theatre critics who have lost their power?
Film critics are reviewing an object that is unchangeable. The theatre critic has always been reviewing something live and changeable. I remember Tynan giving a negative review of some blockbuster movie, a review he thought was worthless itself. He said its like sending a postcard to Ford Motors saying ‘I don’t like your new car’. You are spitting in the wind. You won’t change the art form. The only thing film critics can do and have done is give prominence to little regarded films, or little known Japanese or Russian films.
But I would argue that today, television is regarded as prime by most newspapers. The amount of columns given to plot development of Succession is formidable. I’m astonished at how much space and attention is given to television. It’s almost inevitable. That’s regarded as the main medium.
Do you think that reflects a disdain for critics and their opinions?
Criticism has become utilitarian. It is used as a guide today, about whether it’s worth spending money to see a particular show. My belief is that criticism is about quality of writing and superb prose. There was a procession of great critics starting from William Hazlitt going up to Tynan where you read the criticism for the beauty and the clarity of the style. Now, you read it for a functional reason.
Now, the thing we haven’t talked about yet is the star rating. That is the moment that criticism changed and it became part of a commercial market where you offer not a detailed analysis – but an instant guide. I’ve always thought star ratings were an abomination. I remember then they started to come in. We had meetings as critics. We told our editors that we didn’t like them. And they would say ‘Oh! we have to because the public love them’. Now they are part of the landscape. What they do is short circuit the readers’ response, and they don’t bother to fully engage with the review itself.
There was a time when the Times discouraged critics giving three-star reviews on the grounds that three stars were a turn-off for the reader. This may not be still true, but they were encouraged to go for extremes. Three stars was negative for the reader. But so much art is three stars! It’s neither a masterpiece, nor is it an unassailable disaster. It’s no disgrace to have a three-star play.
Can we talk about the prominence of food writing?
What is significant is the rise and rise and rise of the restaurant critic. Jay Rayner in the Observer gets a double-page spread every week. Susannah Clapp gets 1200 words. She doesn’t get the same space. Restaurants are now regarded as artworks to be estimated at the same level – or at a higher level – than plays.
I don’t see any similarity between us other than we go out and consume things. But I am jealous of the restaurant critic’s newfound prestige. That is relatively modern. It must be one of the most powerful jobs. Look at the quantity of food programmes. I don’t watch a lot of television. But I get home and switch on, and there’s always someone cooking something. Food seems to consume us rather than us consuming food.
And it gives rise to television personalities like Gordon Ramsay and Giles Coren.
They are multimedia stars. They are on television. They write books. They write columns. I’m not knocking them all. I have started cooking more – Nigel Slater’s recipes, for example. I’m just saying that the restaurant critic is a star. What is strange is that when you think of the cost of eating out. People complain about the cost of theatre. A meal for two at most restaurants these days is pretty high. And yet that doesn’t seem to deter the status of the critic. We have transferred our love of the performing arts to cuisine. Except I can’t say why or how. There is a thesis to be found.
Maybe going to a restaurant has become more of an experience, a performance even. Salt Bae’s restaurant-cum-vanity-project in Mayfair… is that not a performance of a kind?
It is. A very expensive performance. It was Tynan who said that there were only two necessary arts: Cuisine and architecture. We all have to eat. And we all have to live in buildings. That may be the reason. Cuisine and theatre. Why has cuisine occupied the place that theatre once did?
Do you think Twitter has anything to do with criticism’s downfall?
I have a Twitter account because the Guardian insisted that I start one. When Alan Rusbridger was editor, he was keen on using every aspect of technology. He cited the example of the National Theatre: if a thousand people visit the National Theatre, then a thousand people all have an opinion – and I shouldn’t just be the only person licensed to have an opinion. They would all come out and tweet. And I would tweet too. And my tweet would be one of many. He talked about this a lot. I resisted this fiercely.
I said that I’ve spent my life studying how to write reviews. It was bad enough writing overnight reviews and filing them by 11:30, but then to have to give an instant opinion at five minutes after the curtain? I don’t see any value to this. But that was his dream. We have to democratise opinion. It should no longer be the privilege of a select few. You can see why I resisted this. Not that I am antidemocratic, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But my whole philosophy is that criticism is a specialised art and it does require practice and discipline. It requires as much energy and clarity and wit than you can bring to your prose. That’s how I became a critic. I grew up in Leamington Spa reading about plays, books and shows that I could never get to.
Do you think that Twitter changes the way critics write and engage in art?
Of course it will, if you are disciplined to express your thoughts in tweets. Obviously, it will impact style.
The comments are important too. Writing for the Guardian always provoked a reaction. In the old days people wrote you long letters. Now they write comments and reactions. Mainly it’s a below the line comment on something you have written. It’s interesting. Occasionally it is offensive or inaccurate. I remember a few years ago I castigated some play at the RSC and somebody commented ‘Billington, he never likes plays directed by women.’ I was apoplectic. I didn’t reply.
How else has theatre criticism changed?
A lot of plays and films are getting increasingly about other plays and films. Are the arts getting dangerously incestuous? Are we at this moment more fascinated by plays about plays, films about films, musicals about musicals? Is it because of a lack of creative dynamism within the culture?
Fashion is another thing that takes up space. At the Oscars, it’s not so much who won what but what the clothes were like. Pages are devoted to what people are wearing.
Food and fashion are immediately gratifying. You have to work to enjoy theatre.
If you walk past the Novello Theatre you will see a sign for Mamma Mia that says ‘You know you are going to enjoy it.’ I think that says an awful lot about where we are. In other words, you don’t invest money in something if it is challenging. You have got to have guaranteed pleasure before you go in, which I think is the enemy of art.
Do you think you have had an impact on British theatre?
At the moment, I have failed totally in my ambition. All the things I was crying out for, more political drama, more international drama, none of them exist at the moment.
In 1990 you wrote: ‘One of my great fears as a critic has been that the theatre would become irrelevant, an escapist pleasure house, a sideshow operating at the margins of society.’
I do fear that theatre is becoming very soft-centred at the moment. It is not doing enough to challenge us, stimulate us, take us into new territory. Plays are becoming more and more marginal. They are a niche product for niche audiences in niche theatres. If you are a serious theatregoer you will go to the National, Jermyn Street, The Orange Tree. There is a network of superb smaller theatres. But challenging plays in the heart of the West End come once in a blue moon. If they exist, they are transfers from elsewhere. Best of Enemies gets an audience in the West End because it had a life at the Young Vic. Patriots too. The West End itself doesn’t produce much in the way of new drama.
So what’s the point of critics? Who cares what we think?
I remember when The Lion King opened. I thought it was a bit of a bore. Les Misérables is a shadow of the book. Does it matter what I think? Audiences go on seeing it.
But going back to your question about have I failed: my life has been a total failure. What did I want? A broader theatre tackling the classics – now almost non-existent. I wanted to see a huge variety of foreign plays – now almost non-existent. And I wanted challenging political plays, which are barely existent. My mission in life has not been accomplished.
I don’t mean that one should stop proselytising. I don’t want to be negative. I encourage you to campaign for what you believe in. And there were moments in British theatre in the 70s and 80s when it was becoming much more international, but everything has changed in the last few years. Everything is now safer. Money is tight. Theatres have their backs to the wall.
Will we ever return to that place? Where theatres had room for creative experimentation?
If the economy turns around. If there is a brand new government with belief in the arts. We are still recovering from the pandemic. Historically, Labour governments have always been friendly or generous to the arts. They normally endow them with more money. And they always lead to profound disillusion – which always stimulates new plays.