Reviewing the situation

THESE days, most local papers have given up on serious professional criticism and reviews, opting for the (free) opinions of their readers, asking random audience members coming out of the cinema for their quick quotes, encouraging “ordinary people” to send their own reviews to the paper’s website or to tweet their instant judgements, and (worst of all) expecting the local amateurs to review themselves!

This is one of the reasons why we left print journalism and set up the Fine Times Recorder, so that we could continue to provide proper reviews of the outstanding theatre in this region, from the small independent touring companies like Forest Forge to the major producing houses, including Salisbury Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic, Bath Theatre Royal and the Nuffield at Southampton.

We are fortunate to be joined by contributors who bring vast experience and expertise to their reviews, whether it is a West End musical on tour, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, new music by local composers or plays by one of our many talented local amateur theatrical or musical groups.

Even those papers which still carry professional reviews expect their previously salaried reviewers to work for nothing, on the grounds that the reviewer enjoys going to the theatre or the cinema or the concert and that the enjoyment is sufficient reward. Newspaper managements begrudge arts reviews taking space that can be better filled with advertorial or “celebrity” gossip. Interestingly, sports match reports – effectively “reviews” – are often allowed many column inches for blow-by-blow, ball-by-ball coverage, when one great picture, a brief report and the score-line is all that is needed.

The vast majority of those news organisations which still have a local print product (a point worth making in this week in which one major “newspaper” company has closed a raft of regional papers and moved on-line) have jettisoned serious arts coverage – informative previews or informed reviews – in favour of syndicated celeb interviews or press releases straight from the PR company.

Yet reviews are widely read, and the views of critics who bring experience and knowledge to their writing are respected and valued. If a critic you trust gives a four or five star review to a play or show you were thinking about going to, it may help you to decide to book your tickets. A bad review by the same critic may make you save your money.

My sister gave me Mark Kermode’s book Hatchet Job for my birthday and I am revelling in his wicked humour, hilarious anecdotes, bruising honesty and vast film knowledge. I listened to Kermode doing his double act with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5 Live as I drove back from London last Friday, relishing the interview with Benedict Cumberbatch and his reviews of films as varied as Interstellar or Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey (how could it be anything but dreadful with that title?)

Kermode is no fan of internet critics – as he says in Hatchet Job, they are anonymous and unaccountable. He wants to know who reviewers are, what they know, where they come from and “what they have to lose” – a significant point.,

I am totally with him. When I read a review I want to know that the person writing the review knows what they are writing about, understands the process, has a depth of knowledge of the history or the technology, can make illuminating comparisons – and can write! That may sound simplistic, but it isn’t. Anyone can give an instant opinion, but I’ve heard them talking as they leave the theatre or the cinema: sometimes my fellow audience members don’t even know what the play was called, what it was about, who wrote it or the names of the leading actors. If I’m going to review a play or a film, I want to know about the person who wrote it and directed it, I want to be able to tell our readers about any significant local connections of people in the company, I want to share the experience and, hopefully, make them want to go along. No spoilers, but enough description to whet their appetite for the whole thing.

Mark Kermode is incredibly funny (and witheringly accurate) on the subject of the cruel put-down, the way we remember the vicious quip and the career-shredding critique – in a way that we never remember the nice things that critics may write, particularly film critics.

However, you have not to overplay that hand. The reason why we remember the great one-liners is that they are rare. Who could forget Dorothy Parker’s verdict on Katherine Hepburn that she ran “the gamut of emotions from A to B,” Mort Sahl’s cry after seeing Exodus, “Let my people go!” or the show-stopping “Splat” response to Lionel Bart’s Twang!

You have to know what you are doing before you can play the fatal quip, as I learned to my cost as a smart-ass young trainee journalist on a daily paper. Sent to review a touring production of Ivor Novello’s Perchance To Dream, I wrote what I thought was a brilliant review: “Sleep would have been a happy release.” The chief sub-editor did not agree. I was not half as clever as I thought I was and was sent back to my desk to “write a proper review.” He was right. I was wrong. I still don’t like Ivor Novello and I hated the show, but I owed the company and the readers proper respect and a decent report. It was the first time I had ever been to a Novello show, and I knew nothing about him. Arrogance and stupidity are no substitute for experience and knowledge.

But Mark Kermode is so right when he comments that it is the bitchy one-liners and the cruel put-downs, whether by himself or Roger Ebert or Dorothy Parker, that we recall. I still remember my Novello line when I have forgotten the hundreds or thousands of thoughtful and constructive reviews I have written. What perverse creatures we are.

Fanny Charles