The Big Interview: Michael Billington
In May 1965, The Times sent a 25-year-old theatre critic to review Saint Joan at the Bristol Old Vic. Half a century later, that critic is still at it – 75 years old and reviewing on an almost daily basis. As The Guardian’s first-string theatre critic, a post he’s held since 1971, Michael Billington is still squeezing himself into pub theatres, travelling the old regional reps and sitting in the aisle seats of the West End on any given night of the week.
He is, undeniably, a fixture of British theatre; perhaps not as prominent as the major practitioners whose work he has covered, but his influence is every bit as pronounced. Creatives can alter the path of British theatre in a moment. Critics do so incrementally. Where a landmark production – a Look Back in Anger or a Blasted, say – becomes a point of no return, a critic’s impact is a slow, subtle shift. It is no less seismic for that, just less a cultural earthquake than a case of continental drift.
Billington has been our eyes and ears where British theatre is concerned for decades. His descriptions of shows have stood in for the shows themselves. His interpretations have represented authorial intentions. His tastes have been the measuring stick against which theatre gets judged. He may not always be right, but he has certainly been read – and that makes him a major influence on the shape of British theatre today.
“We live in an age when critics come and go,” Billington says, as we sit in his sitting room in Chiswick, at his home of 40-plus years, which he shares with his wife Janine. The road’s terraced houses are picture-perfect; a sign of doctors and publishers having replaced mechanics and nurses next door.
“My kind of tenure is almost impossible now, I think. I was part of a generation – Benedict [Nightingale], Jack Tinker and others – who had quite long careers with one newspaper. Nowadays, people are more restless and the industry is much more unreliable, as we both know. I’m part of a lucky generation that had a kind of stability, where newspapers, when I started out, seemed likely to continue and if you enjoyed the job and did it to your employer’s satisfaction, you stayed.”
In the hustle and bustle of a press night, it’s easy to forget Billington is past retiring age. Less so at his home, surrounded by furniture that far pre-dates IKEA. Out front, a ‘Vote Labour’ placard rises out of his front gate – a rare sight in Chiswick – and the cat recently did his business on the carpet. There’s a freshly scrubbed stain as evidence.
Most people will know Billington as a byline photo: a smiling, spectacled sort in a bright blue shirt and cream blazer, hair swept over in a sandy-grey wave. It is a little out of date; his jowls are jowlier and his hair whiter, but the smile is still there, as is the glint in his eyes. He has always reminded me of Kenneth Grahame’s Mole from The Wind in the Willows – partly because of his slight squint and spectacles, but mostly on account of his gentle, genial nature. He’s meeker than you might expect, given both his status and the certainty he can summon in writing, but he’s also pretty robust, more than capable of a speedy getaway shuffle down the aisle to meet an overnight deadline.
There are, as yet, no plans for retirement. “I don’t intend to hang on forever and ever. One of my colleagues said, ‘If you stay on until 2021, you’ll have done 50 years at The Guardian’. I said, ‘I’ll be 81’.” The future depends on three things, he says: health, memory and enthusiasm. It’s hard to believe any of them will fade.
“Whenever the thought of retirement crosses my mind, I look at the diary and think: ‘Oh gosh, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh’s doing Archie Rice. I really want to write about that.’ This is the trouble with theatre: there’s always something exciting round the corner.”
There’s something addictive about theatre criticism – I know, I’m hooked myself. “Addiction is exactly the word,” Billington says. “Going cold turkey fills me with…” He tails off. “If I did retire from the daily job, I’d still like to write a weekly column or something.”
Billington has his fair share of sceptics. In fact, I used to be one myself. When I started out, he seemed to represent a blockage to the sort of theatre I was passionate about: radical, experimental, devised work that resisted definite interpretation. I considered Billington to be giving his tastes precedence over his craft.
Reading One Night Stands, a collection drawn from his first 20 years at The Guardian, totally changed my mind. The reviews, many running up to 1,000 words, are eloquent in their arguments, despite being phoned into subs or written to tight overnight deadlines. Today, even with straightened word counts, he has the same ability to condense a production into a critical case, folding in all the information a reader needs, while pushing well past a mere consumer guide. He organises thoughts effortlessly.
“In my book, criticism is not about the verdict. It’s about trying to write a sort of essay, really, about the work you’ve seen – a literary essay. It’s a very old-fashioned view, but it’s still how I like to think of it. The key word, for me, is ‘context’. It’s always, always about putting things in context. That’s what we’re doing, I think.”
That means putting a Hamlet next to other Hamlets or placing a new Stoppard play in relation to his body of work, he explains. Done well, that’s insightful. But it can easily be redundant – doubly so in the internet age, with information so readily Googleable. Today’s critic must testify to his or her human experience of a piece.
For Billington, that absolutely includes one’s prior experiences. “It’s a dual thing. You have to clear your mind of any preconceptions and, at the same time, bring whatever memories or knowledge you have.”
He has a lot of both. Born and raised in Leamington Spa, Billington came to theatre through his local theatres in Birmingham and Coventry and, most of all, at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Stratford was the Mecca,” he says.
When he was 15, Olivier did a season: Malvolio, Macbeth, Titus. Billington saw the lot. Some of them twice. Three times, even. “I can remember his Macbeth; the sound of it, physical bits. It’s absolutely clearly imprinted on my memory.”
He credits “great acting” – particularly that generation of “heroic actors” – with his “addiction” to theatre. In his teens, he saw Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans regularly. But Olivier stuck out, as he did for many. “There was something mysterious about Olivier, because he was always different, just as Mark Rylance is today.” Offstage, the actor’s glamour – his marriage to Vivien Leigh – was just as powerful on the young theatregoer.
Billington has watched that acting style change over the course of his career. “Acting’s less about impersonation these days and more about explication,” he says; a svelte summary of a move from “protean changes” towards naturalism. “I don’t think acting has declined, but Olivier and that generation were part of a heroic age of acting; they created exceptional people on stage.” Partly it’s about tastes; partly, about the plays being written. Today’s new plays are “more democratic”, he says, with fewer “elevated star parts”.
With it has gone the sense of glamour. Those acting greats, who kept their own personalities and lives secret, have been replaced with interview-happy stars, explaining their process and revealing the contents of their handbags and their best smoothie recipes. “Gains and losses,” says Billington. “Theatre is no longer seen as some strange magical, foreign world. Young people learn about the practicalities of it early on.”
He dabbled with directing himself. After a few plays at university came a couple of years at a regional rep – predominantly in PR, but occasionally directing. First up was a farce, Doctor at Sea, based on Richard Gordon’s novel. “I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to handle the mechanics of it. I just didn’t know enough about the actual process of getting a play on in two weeks.”
Despite insisting he’ll do so “very briefly,” Billington dwells on his own directing at length, with a certain wistful tone. In 1989, he did Marivaux’s The Will with a group of RSC actors. Nine years later, he tried Pinter and Strindberg for Battersea Arts Centre’s Critics season, the poster of which hangs in his hallway: Billington and three other critics standing in a police-style line-up, a symbol of the suspicion with which critics are held. Most recently, he directed a couple of Pinter shorts at LAMDA. It’s the only moment he grows nostalgic, talking me through each with loving detail.
If this is a surprise, it’s because Billington seems so definitely a critic – absolutely not one of the failed creatives that cliche insists lurk beneath the surface. “What was that line at the end of Gypsy the other night? ‘If I could have been, I would have been.’ I was always drawn to it, but in the end, I was comfortable when I sat down at a desk in a room alone with an old-fashioned typewriter and wrote about other people. When I went into a rehearsal room, I always felt nervous.”
Still, no regrets, he says: “I don’t sit here and think, ‘I could have been Trevor Nunn’. You make whatever contribution your talent allows you to make.”
He was drawn to criticism by the same thing that drew him to actors. “It seemed incredibly glamorous, in a way.” Not, he admits, a word you’d use of critics today. Kenneth Tynan, on the other hand, appeared glamour personified. “The way he wrote was sexy and vibrant, and he seemed to know everyone in the business. To all of us provincials in tweed jackets and bicycle clips, he seemed to embody a sort of extraordinary, stellar charisma.”
Billington started by spoofing Tynan for an Observer competition (“A meaty part and, sure enough, Sir Donald wolfed it”) before edging into criticism professionally. “I was lucky,” he says, “There were lots of opportunities.” Peter Roberts took him on at Plays and Players, then The Times followed. “In those days, it reviewed everything – quite literally. Regional theatre, university theatre – even school productions, occasionally.” However, being a deputy meant “existing in someone else’s wake”, and one gets the sense that the young Billington was ambitious. He’d written to The Observer early on, was recommended – by Tynan, no less – for Harold Hobson’s Sunday Times gig, before going after The Guardian job and replacing Philip Hope-Wallace.
“It took me a long time to be forgiven by Guardian readers for not being Philip. I’m not sure I still am, actually. For the first decade I was struggling under his shadow, because he was loved and adored – and he’d been there for 30 years.”
Longevity, says Billington, has obvious pros and cons – trust and memory against predictability and repetition – but he’s very aware of the privilege of his position and, with it, the responsibility: namely, “to use that opportunity creatively; to keep nudging the theatre, needling the theatre, harrying the theatre and reminding it of what it’s not doing.” His own campaigns, lifelong really, have involved pushing for more political plays and a wider repertoire – both of which, you might argue, have been won. His last book, State of the Nation, charted post-war political theatre. His next, out in October, lists 101 great plays and may raise some eyebrows (instance: no Blasted). “No campaign is ever won. Another campaign comes along,” he says.
Billington resists the notion of having influenced British theatre. But he’s adamant there’s no thought of legacy. “One doesn’t calculate one’s life in terms of landmarks. You do the job because of the dictates of the moment and you almost live from week to week.”
Journalism, in other words, is a peculiarly present-tense activity. “Each morning, you’re facing a new challenge, which is to make sense of last night’s play and to write as clearly and concisely, as vividly, as you can. You’re not weighing up ‘Why am I doing this?’ or ‘What’s my role?’ or ‘How long have I been at this?’.”
There’s a lot in this. The addiction of criticism is as much down to the terror and thrill of the blank page and the impending deadline as it is the endless stream of shows. It’s a fact that gets forgotten by the industry, pouring over every sub-clause for significance. “That’s weighed on me all my career; the fact that what we write in haste is going to be chewed over at leisure.”
Case in point, he remembers a review of The Taming of the Shrew, with Jonathan Pryce as Petruchio for the RSC, filed from a Stratford hotel room at 11pm, post-show. He ended by flagging up the play’s barbarism: “I think it’s time we put it on the shelf and forgot about it.”
Billington has other regrets: Blasted, in particular, and Betrayal, both of which he misjudged in the moment. His approach has always been acknowledgement. “Antonia Fraser once said to me, ‘Michael, you don’t need to go on apologising for your failure to understand the play the first time’. But one does get a bit self-conscious about this.” Particularly, one imagines, as Pinter’s biographer. “You’re more ashamed of your moments of embarrassment or failure than of any modest successes you might have had, aren’t you?”
He adds: “It’s not about opinions in the end. It’s about how well you write. Everyone’s got an opinion. It’s the vigour with which you express it that counts.”