High culture, and the serious critics who support and explain it, have gradually become marginalised in the mass media. Critical clowns have stormed the citadel of Shaw, Tynan and Porterby Michael Coveney / November 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I was a tyro drama critic on the Financial Times 30 years ago, the newspaper’s chairman, Lord Drogheda, threw a party each Christmas in his London home in Lord North Street. He would introduce me to some bigwig or other with the same line every year, “This is young Coveney who writes about the sort of plays nobody wants to go and see.” Why did he say this? Because I had been employed by his arts editor, the drama critic BA Young, to cover the burgeoning fringe theatre that had sprouted in the wake of the cultural explosion at the end of the 1960s. Why did he put up with my writing about such plays? Because he knew that new work mattered as much, if not more, than classic revivals and west end comedies.
In the early 1970s, the FT used three theatre critics, four or five music critics, a dance critic (the evergreen, still inimitable Clement Crisp), and gradually established regular weekly columns on television, radio, cinema, architecture and (acknowledging Mammon’s place in the order of artistic things) the saleroom. What is more, this page was not tucked away out of sight. Throughout the 1970s arts occupied the whole of the FT’s page three.
Every single debutant at the Wigmore Hall was reviewed, every new play at the Bush or the Theatre Upstairs or the ICA. London is still the music capital of the world; in those days, the arts pages, led by the FT, treated it as such. Lord Drogheda was chairman not only of the FT, but also of the Royal Opera House. When looking for the paper’s first music critic in the early 1950s, he found Andrew Porter, a critic of an authority and brilliance to rival George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Newman. There is no one else quite like Porter, who today writes mainly in the Times Literary Supplement. Great critics are rare birds; rare birds, though, need a welcoming aviary, and the zookeepers are not on the lookout for such special—and specialist—breeds of plumage any more.