Speaking to The Stage in 2015, soon after his 75th birthday, Michael Billington pondered the possibility of 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.’
“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… If I did retire from the daily job, I’d still like to write a weekly column or something.”
Just short of his 80th birthday and a couple of years shy of a half-century as the Guardian’s first-string critic, Billington has now stepped down from the day-job but will “continue to contribute regularly to the Guardian’s extensive stage coverage” – which sounds like he might write a weekly column or something.
His departure, even if partial, marks the end of an era. It presents both an opportunity, and a loss. The opportunity is obvious: at a time when many national dailies have reduced their theatre coverage, the Guardian has (by and large) remained committed. Its first-string reviewing berth is the most prestigious theatre criticism role left in the UK: whom the Guardian chooses to replace Billington matters.
Much could be gained if a fresh appointment opens up the discussion around theatre to new audiences and demographics. Might we even see the first appointment of a critic of colour to a first-string role?
But whoever replaces Billington – and whatever their background – something will be lost: more than 50 years of accumulated knowledge and experience. This is always true when a long-standing critic retires, but the difference with previous big-name departures (such as Benedict Nightingale, Michael Coveney or Charles Spencer) was that we always still had Billington. Now we won’t. He is the last of his kind: the final figure from an era when there was longevity and stability in a career as a theatre reviewer and you could build up years of expertise while earning a living from it alone.
Theatre criticism has changed. Some would argue it still needs to change more. Much has been gained (and much more will be gained) through the diversification of voices who write about theatre, but in the short term at least, there will be a big gap left by Billington’s departure from the daily grind of first nights.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith