“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts…” So opined Michael Gove to Sky News’ Faisal Islam on June 3, 2016 and he’s never lived it down. Okay, it hasn’t hung around his neck to the same degree that Ann Widdecombe’s notorious “There’s something of the night about him” decimated home secretary Michael Howard and it’s certainly not up there with Mrs Merton’s career-defining opener to Debbie McGee: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” But Gove’s opinion certainly resonates with editors when it comes to theatre critics.
At the time of writing, there’s still no news as to who will replace Ann Treneman as chief theatre critic of the Times. Ann – whom I happily worked alongside when she was a shrewd, sparky feature writer at the Independent – has swapped regular journalism for a degree in landscape architecture and horticulture at Sheffield University. And, unhappily, I’m less than confident that her post will be filled by someone with detailed knowledge and passion.
Once upon a time, whenever a senior critic stepped down, what followed was akin to musical chairs with the rest of the pack lining up to take over from each other as they moved from paper to paper. Not any more.
Treneman’s own appointment in 2015 followed the developing trend for non-experts since she was neither a theatre specialist nor a critic when she began. Her route – from the Times’ parliamentary sketch writer to watching from the stalls – precisely mirrored that of Quentin Letts on the Daily Mail. He went from writing about House of Commons antics to growing aerated when a play’s subject or language might disturb the world view of dyed-in-the-wool Tory readers. He held the post for 14 years before moving to the Sunday Times earlier this year.
When Evgeny Lebedev (and his father, Alexander) bought the Evening Standard in 2009, he privately reassured industry figures that the paper’s theatre coverage would be in the best hands and appointed Henry Hitchings, prize-winning non-fiction author of books on Samuel Johnson and the English language but not a theatre specialist, to replace Nicholas de Jongh as lead theatre critic. (Both Hitchings and his deputy Fiona Mountford – with 27 years of reviewing experience under their belts – were replaced this year in a “cost-cutting” exercise.)
Even infamous columnist Toby Young had a stab at theatre criticism, spending about a year at the Spectator. Memorably, he loved Kenneth Lonergan’s (excellent) Lobby Hero at London’s Donmar Warehouse: “A fantastic play, but I’d be hard pushed to say why.” He then listed all the production elements he so strongly applauded yet failed to mention either the role or name of the director. He compared it with Lonergan’s debut as a film writer/director, adding: “I’m not sure I could say why, but I think You Can Count on Me was the best film of last year.” Proffering such bafflement as an audience member is fine; from a critic paid to analyse and explain to readers, not so much.
Compare this with sports journalism. Comprehensive product knowledge is essential. As a kid, I had a couple of tennis lessons but, rightly, no one would hire me as their tennis correspondent. Editors want sports writers with knowledge and understanding of the game, who won what, against whom, in which championships, going back decades, and routinely expect that knowledge to be used in print.
At the same time, no sports journalist is required to explain the rules of whatever game they’re covering. On Match of the Day, Gary Lineker never explains the offside rule. Viewers are expected to keep up.
Just over a decade ago, I was invited on to the shortlist to become the Guardian’s arts editor and was asked to submit ideas. I argued the paper had the most committed readers of any arts pages but that they were not always ideally served. The arts coverage, I said, sometimes carried too great an air of scepticism whereas they should display the same knowledge, insight and passionate advocacy as the sports pages. I was promptly de-selected.
This pre-Govian, anti-expert position boils down to distrust. Not only are the arts deemed less serious than sports, they’re deemed suspect (that’s code for “girly” or “gay”). I’ve lost count of the number of editors who have told me that “readers don’t need reviews” while cheerfully filling sports pages with… reviews. Oh wait, they’re not called reviews, they’re match reports: much more ‘manly’.
We must, they argue, assume no knowledge in our readers. So-called ‘technical terms’ are off-putting and critics knowing their stuff is, apparently, elitist. Face it, we can all watch shows and write about them, so anyone can be a critic, right? Wrong.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict