Whatever you think of their views, journalists have an important role in the arts

The Apollo Theatre after the partial collapse of its ceiling. Photo: Ryan Forde Iosco The Apollo Theatre after the partial collapse of its ceiling. Photo: Ryan Forde Iosco
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Critics are only human – and we all do a bit of navel gazing from time to time. I’ve often written about the future of theatre reviewing here, as I observe a fast-changing landscape where there are more and more opportunities to write – but fewer and fewer opportunities to be paid for doing so.

In the last couple of weeks another national newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph, formally ditched its theatre reviews column after Tim Walker left the paper. He was the last in a line of prestigious theatre critics who served there, including playwright Frank Marcus, novelist Francis King, literary editor and critic John Gross who was once described as “the best-read man in Britain” and popular columnist Rebecca Tyrrel.

[pullquote]We had our differences, including a public feud[/pullquote]

Though Tim and I had our differences over the years, including a public feud that aired and was fuelled on this very blog, we have more recently made up, particularly during his generous and open-hearted public support of me after I lost my reviewing outlet on the Sunday Express.

Yes, Tim could be controversial in some of his views, but then he obviously liked to stir it up a bit. And I fell for it. I allowed some of those views to get under my skin, and felt it was necessary to sometimes openly challenge them and him.

But what was great is that it led to a theatrical conversation: some mud may have been slung, but we eventually washed it off and we realised that we sometimes liked the same things. And the truth is that it’s always only ever a matter of opinion. So what? At least we had opinions.

But now there’s now one less opinion a week to read. We’ve already seen the Independent on Sunday and Metro drop most of their regular reviewing coverage; now we’re another one down. There are, of course, countless blogs and websites to pick up the slack, but the very fact that a national newspaper is no longer giving room to the theatre has to be a cause for concern. Which paper will be the next to go?

The other day I was brought up short by another blog, Central Track, written from the inside of the Dallas art world, that was headlined: The Whole Arts World Is Totally Fucked. And Everyone’s Talking About Arts Criticism?

As Darryl Ratcliff offered in his introduction:

Let me let you in on a little secret. The problem with Dallas art, and the rest of the art world in general, has nothing to do with arts criticism. In other words? Maybe we don’t need to spend so much time worrying about it. Crazy, I know. But even though art criticism is a perennially popular topic in these parts, worrying about the state of art criticism is kind of like complaining about the upholstery of a living room chair while your whole house is burning down.

Actually, this blog regularly worries away at the state of the art, particularly as it relates to theatre. Just the other day I was reflecting on the gridlock on West End theatres caused by endless long-runners, and how that effect means there’s little room for new product to shake it up. I’ve also regularly worried about the state of West End theatres themselves, even before the partial collapse of the Apollo ceiling and the imposition of compulsory restoration levies that audiences have to pay but don’t necessarily ever see the results of.

I don’t want the houses to fall or burn down. Or audiences to be fleeced by premium prices so that they simply stop going. Sometimes, of course, a little upholstery may be all that is necessary. Someone needs to be around to say this stuff. I’m not saying I’m the only one. I’d love it if artists said it, too.

[pullquote]Arts journalists play a part in keeping the conversation going[/pullquote]

But arts journalists can and do play a part in keeping this conversation going. Someone needs to hold the business of show to account. As has been proved time and again in the newspaper industry, self-regulation is simply not enough.

It’s important, though, not to be on the attack (or the defensive) all the time. I also see a significant part of my role to be that of a supporter and champion for the theatre. Thank you for continuing to read and support this column as I attempt to do so.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

The Stage Awards 2015