Thoughts on a fellow critic as Charles Spencer bows out

Charles Spencer. Photo: Andrew Crowley.
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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The late Milton Shulman reviewed theatre for the Evening Standard until he was well into his 80s, a run of some 38 years. Michael Billington, now 74, has been at it even longer: he has been theatre critic of The Guardian since 1971, a run of 43 years. And counting.

So the news that Charles Spencer has taken early retirement from the Telegraph after 23 years (his last review, for Toast, was published on Monday) means that he has gone relatively early. He’s 59.
No job, of course, is ever for life, but theatre criticism is – like acting – a job for which there is no official retirement age. As long as you can remember the lines, you can keep on acting. As long as you can keep writing the lines, you can keep on reviewing.

Apparently, that’s not a view shared by Spencer himself, who’s quoted in a news story at his soon-to-be alma mater:

I have loved my job, but critics shouldn’t go on too long. I feel I’ve had my say and it’s time to stop and put my feet up.

And in a Telegraph editorial paying tribute to him it states, "Always leave the audience wanting more; so goes the first rule of the stage. Charles Spencer has learnt that lesson well."
And it goes on to declare:

There are many ingredients to great criticism, but above all it is trustworthiness. Our readers, for a quarter of a century, have known that if Charles says a play is worth the money, it probably is; he has been a truthful voice in a world sometimes too full of artifice.

Charlie's personal honesty has often been as open as his criticism. Reviewing a play at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2012 he revealed:

No one could accuse Kissing Sid James of being a comic masterpiece, but after three months off work with clinical depression it struck me as being just what the doctor ordered.

Two years earlier, he wrote of a Northampton revival of David Hare's My Zinc Bed, “It is hard to imagine how David Hare could have written a more misguided and malign play," and after telling of his own powerful experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous (an organisation the play’s characters criticise) he concluded forcefully that it "could actively deter those with a drink problem from seeking their best chance of recovery. It’s not just a bad play. It is a wicked one, too.”

It is not always appropriate for a critic to put himself at the centre of a narrative about a play he is reviewing, but when a play affects you directly and personally, it is honest to point it out. Our readers don't have an automatic right to know our personal histories, of course, but I'm very proud of Charlie for doing so with such openness, and I have tried to follow his example, writing publicly, for instance, about my own depression.

And that is part of a reader's relationship with a critic: it is only by getting to know a critic's tastes and foibles that the reader can set their own judgements against the critic's. Having always felt I knew Charlie from his writing, when I got to know the warm, generous man behind the words, I saw there was no difference. He is invariably passionate, informed and astute.

That doesn't mean I have always agreed with him. In 2005, he wrote a sustained personal attack on Tommy Steele's performance in a London Palladium run of Scrooge, for which I felt he went too far. It was, however, amusing enough to bear a shortened retelling:

He repeated a bit of showbiz legend – that when Steele appeared in Singin’ in the Rain at the same address, he was so disliked by the backstage crew “that they would regularly urinate into the water tanks that were to rain down on to Steele’s head during his performance of the show’s title number.”

Whether that’s substantiated or just an apocryphal theatrical anecdote, he then takes great glee in declaring, “I fear this review is about to perform the verbal equivalent.” Which he proceeded to do, writing, "His Scrooge proves quite nauseatingly sentimental, and when he finally discovers the milk of human kindness – just as my own was curdling – Steele starts flashing that dazzlingly insincere smile at us, the one thing about Bob Tomson’s anodyne production that is certain to give the children in the audience nightmares. There is no more terrifying sight in showbiz. “Love me! Love me! Love me!”, it silently screams. “Tell me I’m a star.” And sure enough the audience rewards him, as Tommy Steele’s audiences always do, with a standing ovation. There is nothing the British love more than the second-rate."

As this passage also proves, Charlie was nothing if not a first-rate writer, even (or especially) in full rant. He will be sorely missed. But the paper will, at least, remain in safe hands: Dominic Cavendish, his deputy since 2000, will take over.

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