The Green Room: Is criticism of younger actors by older ones justified?

Photo: Ljupco Smokovsk/shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End

Keith Simpson is in his early 20s and, since graduating from drama school in 2016, has worked on national tours and in rep

Ros Clifford is 30. Currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years


AlbertI suppose we’re talking about Judi Dench referring to young people’s lack of vocal skills and things like that – not actually criticising people in the rehearsal room?

Jon Well, Judi Dench was a more recent example, but it happens pretty regularly: Martin Shaw saying young actors won’t tour; Steven Berkoff saying they’re “ghastly”.

Adam Judi Dench to Berkoff is a pretty broad spectrum.

Vivian Of course older actors are allowed to criticise, it’s whether you pay any heed to it.

Albert Most young actors are keen to learn from their elders. So as long as any criticism is framed in a constructive way, I think it’s fine.

Adam At the risk of being lawyerly about this…it depends on the criticism, doesn’t it? In some cases it’s justified – a lot of people agreed with Dench – but for others, mentioning no names, it can come across as: “I can’t stand that I am getting old and starting to feel irrelevant, so I will criticise the world around me that I no longer understand.”

Jon Good point, Adam. Maybe criticism is the wrong word. Let’s talk generally about the relationship between older and younger actors.

Adam I think that every generation of actors loses something the older generation has. Wolfit would be furious that none of us know the correct gestures for ‘happy’ and ‘sad’.

Albert Berkoff just went on a mean, moaning rant about how young actors don’t get out there to do repertory. Has he tried finding a decent repertory job these days?

Adam Acting evolves – the same stuff was said about Marlon Brando when he started. And the flipside is rarely mentioned: that each generation develops new skills. We have a generation of really nuanced and skilful screen performers in a way that we didn’t in the 1960s.

Keith Exactly. I feel these generalisations stem from a fear of older actors being forgotten. It’s slightly weird that they blame younger actors for not revering their heroes, as although we may not know the ins and outs of John Gielgud’s career and legacy, we certainly know, respect and look up to the legacy of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and the like.

Albert Dench was commenting on something she felt that could be improved, which was the vocal prowess of actors. Undoubtedly it could. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had the controversy about alleged inaudibility in Jamaica Inn and SS-GB.

Vivian I personally adore listening to older actors. I want to hear all the stories and, yes, even the criticisms. I want to feel that connection to a long line of blackguards and vagabonds that have done it all before, better, and in heels.

Adam Older actors holding court in the green room bar is a joy. I’m basically talking about Michael Gambon here.

Ros Older actors seem to have a little more respect for their stage management teams. They seem to understand what we do a lot more, but that’s maybe because they’ve been working longer than the younger generation. I find younger actors a lot more demanding of stage managers and their time. And more likely to forget ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

Albert That would probably be a generational thing, rather than being specific to actors.

Ros But I’ve always found that older actors and younger actors are very respectful of each other in the room.

Adam There are a lot of things I learned on my first jobs by asking older actors. I loved that relationship. Not just about the work, things like how much to tip dressers.

Albert The younger generation is keen to say what the older generation does wrong, so a bit of feedback the other way never goes amiss.

Adam I once saw an older actor run down the corridor after first preview shouting at a drama-school leaver to hang his effing costume up.

Albert In my third, or so, theatre job, having been out of drama school three years, an elder actor took me aside during rehearsals to tell me that I was playing the part all wrong.

Adam I’ve had that too.

Vivian They aren’t all sweet ol’ dears, either…

Albert It upset me, but the other younger actors were incredibly supportive and I told him that, as it was me that was playing the part, I would take the risk with what I was doing. Thankfully, he was proved spectacularly wrong.

Jon To what extent should we be expected to know our heritage? Does it make a difference to the work we do? Is it important to know who Gielgud was? And how far back does one go? Henry Irving? David Garrick? Richard Burbage?

Vivian I think a healthy respect and knowledge of our heritage is a good thing. Awe, idolatry and weird obsessive fandom isn’t, so much.

Adam It’s important to know the heritage, but it’s also important to just do your own thing. I don’t think the skill of acting requires any reference to the past.

Albert I think we’re quite lucky. Young actors respect their elders far more than the younger generation respect their elders in general.

Adam When I’m teaching students, I often tell them that I don’t know many professional actors who at one stage weren’t obsessed with watching films or seeing plays. You do need to immerse yourself in really good work. I don’t think you can become an actor and say: “I don’t really watch TV, films or theatre.”

Albert I don’t think that the work of any younger actor is improved by knowing about Gielgud getting arrested. But if you’re working in a particular style, and the actors concerned were brilliant exponents of that style, then do your research.

Vivian It wasn’t all better in black and white. And if I hear another anecdote about Peter O’Toole…