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Andrzej Lukowski: With Quentin Letts leaving the Daily Mail, is criticism losing its panto villain?

Quentin Letts. Photo: Twitter

For 14 years, the chief bogeyman of British theatre’s critical fraternity has been the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts. And now, at last, his reign is (sort of) over [1]. He’s departing the Mail, presumably as a result of the recent mellowing of the paper’s political stance.

Was Letts the monster some theatremakers maintain? There have been varying degrees of criticism aimed back at him, not least around his review of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich [2] at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

But being diplomatic, I’d say it’s pretty undeniable that he demonstrated little intellectual curiosity about theatre, and had little-to-no sense of care or responsibility for any of his subjects. And as a result a lot of people in theatre disliked him.

His day-job was slagging off politicians as the Mail’s sketch writer, and he’d be as reflexively vicious to a young actor as a veteran MP. It’s easy to overlook the majority of his reviews, which are brisk, bland and often positive. But it’s the nastiness that lingers.

What I do wonder is whether any of what he wrote really mattered. A bad review from him would often hurt feelings, but I doubt his relentless dislike of anything even slightly progressive really damaged any shows’ prospects.

‘The worst thing about Letts’ tenure at the Mail wasn’t the nastiness, but the waste of a platform’

There were theatres, including the Lyric Hammersmith, the Almeida, and the Royal Court in London, where he seemed to hate literally every show. His scorn became so predictable it gave the whole thing the air of an elaborate charade. A bad review in the Mail was meaningless, because it was a given.

My fascination in him stemmed from curiosity. Why was he doing this? I’d often see him having a miserable time at a show that his readers would never go near anyway, and I sometimes wondered if this was all some sort of punishment doled out by his infamously martinet editor Paul Dacre.

Which is why it’s a surprise that he’ll continue to review for the Sunday Times – presumably fewer shows, and obviously behind a paywall, but I had assumed he might finally feel a sense of release at last, like a tortured spirit finally at rest. Hopefully he will be spared the Royal Court, for everyone’s sake.

The worst thing about Letts’ tenure at the Mail wasn’t the nastiness, but the waste of a platform. Yes, the Mail’s politics, even post-Dacre, aren’t great, but a lot of people read it. And given the paper’s undeniable commitment to maintaining its theatre coverage, would it not have been better to employ a critic who gave the impression of caring more about the art form?

There are plenty of right-wing critics with broader minds and greater intellectual curiosity than Letts. He may not have got on with Sarah Kane, but Jack Tinker was undeniably a serious theatre critic.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. I hope the Mail replaces Letts, rather than phases theatre reviews out as the other tabloids have done, and I hope his successor has a different approach. Criticism may be losing its panto villain, but there is the potential for his pulpit to be used constructively.