The unthinkable has happened. Michael Billington has called it a day on the night job as he passes his 80th birthday and dreams of afternoons at Lord’s watching cricket and evenings at home nursing a malt whiskey. He’s only done the front-line job at the Guardian for 48 years. What a lightweight! He’s cashing in his chips and laying down his quill. And we shall be plunged into darkness.
As with the retirement and subsequent passing of a great sports writer such as Hugh McIlvanney or a great film critic like Philip French, you really do sense the end of an era. Except that in sports writing and film criticism there are still some very good writers making a successful career in print journalism – you can cite Mick Cleary and Henry Winter in the first category, Peter Bradshaw and Mark Kermode in the second.
But the notion of a career in theatre criticism is something that looks precariously unlikely to be an option as newspapers join the online scrabble, newspaper budgets for the arts are in tatters and the general cultural shift is towards hiring non-experts to write about theatre. I don’t understand why this happened. No editor, online or in print, would pay for opinions on economics or medicine, or indeed football, from an ignoramus in those fields.
There are good theatre critics still, notably the two Dominics, Cavendish on the Telegraph, Maxwell on the Times, but only the first is beginning to look as though he might be in for the long haul. And, just as you have to earn the right (or once had to) to write about the theatre on a newspaper, so the current ‘given’ is that you don’t.
Of course, if you write as brilliantly as William Hazlitt, Kenneth Tynan, Clive James or AA Gill, it doesn’t matter if you know nothing. The point about those chaps, of course, was that they knew a great deal, and their writing was only brilliant because of that. And, the same could be said of Pauline Kael, CA Lejeune, Penelope Gilliatt and Caryl Brahms.
Such a view of the primacy of criticism as a vocation is no doubt considered ‘old school’ and has little place in a populist, low-level social media context where everyone is an artist, and indeed everyone a critic – “Come on in, the water’s lovely: join the conversation” – and Arts Council England states it now makes funding priorities in the cause of diversity and community outreach rather than excellence.
Billington’s career has been dedicated to the non-ideological extrapolation of talent, ideas, meaning and standards of performance and execution in the arts. His 10,000 reviews written with as much spark as fluency, define a lifetime quest to weigh the balance of the private and the political, the personal and the public, in drama from Ibsen to Ayckbourn, from Pinero to Pinter, from Gershwin to Sondheim, from Shaw to Hare. And beyond.
He’s old and wise enough to know that a lot of what is lauded on the fringe is a lot of hooey, and he’s nice enough to say so in the mildest of manners. Unusually, though not fatally in his case, he simply does not possess a malign bone in his body. And he has constantly surprised us by coming out for productions and companies you would have thought he’d loathe and dismiss. His great gift has always been for seeing the good in almost everything and his arguments are always stern and formidable, though he has a thing, when it comes to adaptations, of decrying our search for the novel rather than the new.
Billington decided to be a critic while still at Oxford and started out in newspapers in Liverpool (and briefly in admin at Lincoln Rep) before filing reviews in Plays and Players and the Times, where he was appointed Irving Wardle’s deputy in 1965. Wardle was no clubland fuddy duddy, though it’s hard now to realise that the critic Billington succeeded in the top job at the Guardian, the mercurial and mischievous Philip Hope-Wallace, to a certain extent was.
He was seriously in love with theatre, and an avid theatregoer, before he even smelt the ink ribbon on an Olympia typewriter. His capacious memory has instant, undimmed access to the great performances of Olivier in Macbeth and Titus Andronicus, Peggy Ashcroft as the Duchess of Malfi and Michael Redgrave as Vanya.
Wardle, 10 years older, drew his well of experience from the last days of the old-style Old Vic and the first of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, the coming of Beckett and Pinter. Billington, alongside him for a while, charted with close attention and constructive enthusiasm, the creation and flourishing of both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
At the same time, Billington was an almost embarrassingly tireless internationalist. For a while we both worked for a magazine attached to Giorgio Strehler’s Théâtre de l’Europe project at the Odéon in Paris – scene of Sarah Bernhardt, Jean-Louis Barrault and les événements of 1968. His reviews of the great productions of Peter Stein, Peter Brook, Deborah Warner, Declan Donnellan, Robert Wilson and Strehler himself, are an essential record of our times. Maybe he’ll have leisure now to tell his own story of European theatre between hard covers.
Certainly no one who cares about the theatre and thinks that what happens today can be justly considered in the context of what happened yesterday, can do without consulting, on a regular basis, Billington’s work. His definitive biographies of Peggy Ashcroft and Harold Pinter; his brilliant history of British theatre since 1945, State of the Nation; and his wittily provocative The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present. Luckily for us he’ll balance his much-deserved status as an éminence grise with continuing to pop up in the Guardian. He may well be replaced by another critic. But he is, literally, irreplaceable.