“With age, I get more tolerant of failure”: Interview with Michael Billington

by Mark Fisher*

He had a front-row seat for the political theatre of the 1970s, the musicals of the 1980s, the in-yer-face generation of the 1990s and the cross-cultural developments of the twenty-first century. Now, at the age of 80, and after 48 years as lead drama critic on the Guardian, Michael Billington is stepping off the critical merry-go-round. He began his life as a critic while a student at Oxford University. After graduating in 1961, he wrote reviews for the Liverpool Echo before a stint working at the Lincoln Theatre Company. He wrote about television, film and theatre for the Times, Birmingham Post and Illustrated London News, and joined the Guardian in 1971. He has also written for the New York Times and Country Life, and presented BBC radio arts programmes.

Michael Billington at the Guardian leaving party (2019)

As well as maintaining a five-show-a-week habit, Billington is the author of books including The Modern Actor (1973, Hamish Hamilton), The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (1996, Faber), One Night Stands (1993, Nick Hern Books), State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945 (2007, Faber) and The 101 Greatest Plays (2017, Faber). After stepping down from the Guardian at the end of 2019, he will continue to write features for the newspaper on a monthly basis.

He looks back across his career with critic Mark Fisher.

In your tribute to the late Jonathan Miller last week, you opened with what a classic Michael Billington sentence: “My first sighting of Jonathan Miller was at the Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh in August 1960.” It reminded me that people often praise you for the amount of experience you bring to your reviews. I have a contrary reaction, which is to wonder what you were like in 1960 as a tyro critic. You had no experience, so were you any good?

Oh, my goodness! I was probably better in 1960 than I am today. I was appointed theatre critic of Cherwell, the Oxford University newspaper, by Peter Preston (who 11 years later appointed me the drama critic of the Guardian). He objected to my clotted prose and taught me a good lesson, which is clarity and simplicity in writing.

Do you think it was clotted?

It was clotted, absolutely. Clotted is the word. I was writing reviews at Oxford, and I thought I would take myself off to an Edinburgh Festival and spend three weeks there. This was 1960. It was my first trip to Edinburgh and the Festival, and I saw everything, plays, opera, ballet . . . I went to the Fringe, which, in those days, had about 35 shows, and you could see the bulk of them over a three-week span. I went to football—I had a fantastic time.

On my first night in Edinburgh, I went to see a production of The Seagull at 7 p.m., with a young actor called Tom Courtenay making his professional debut; then, at 10.30 p.m., on came this ramshackle revue, Beyond the Fringe, with a couple of people, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, I knew by reputation. Like everyone else, I was bedazzled.

So, was I any good? I think I was quite earnest as a young critic. But I tried everything at Oxford; I tried directing and acting, and I wasn’t very good at either. But, when I was reviewing, I was sitting behind a desk in my room, in front of a portable Olivetti Lettera 22, and I felt at ease. I suddenly felt, “Gosh! I’m comfortable doing this. When I walk into a rehearsal room, I’m pensive, nervous—will I be able to choreograph the production? But when I’m at my desk, I feel a sense of personal equilibrium. Maybe that’s telling me something.”

I was quite single-minded and dedicated to the idea in my final year at Oxford. I found there was an optional paper in drama in the English degree course. Not a single other person took it! I sat alone in the vast examination room one hot day, the only person taking this paper. The other joke was they couldn’t find anyone to tutor me. They had to scour the university to find a don who was sufficiently up in theatre to guide me through this course. But, by the time I got to the end of Oxford, I thought, “This is what I want to do.”

People who have come through an English literature course have a tendency to talk about theatre as if they were studying a text, so it’s interesting that you studied drama.

I immersed myself in drama in my late teens. At Oxford, I was seeing plays and taking part in plays whenever I could. My theatrical education, though, began earlier than that, and it was to do with living near Stratford-upon-Avon, Birmingham and Coventry. Birmingham had a famous rep theatre, which, in those days, did the whole of world drama. Coventry, you saw showbiz spectaculars—and I loved comedians, music hall and variety. At Stratford, when I was 15, there was one of those golden seasons, when Laurence Olivier played Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and Malvolio. That was the single event that made me think I wanted to be somehow part of this theatrical world.

Seeing popular theatre as well as serious stuff reminds me about what you wrote about Jonathan Miller, which is that Beyond the Fringe “had a more lasting impact on the culture than anything in post-war theatre.” That seems an astonishing claim from someone who wrote a book about Harold Pinter.

I seriously believe this. As well as the performance there was an LP, which I’ve still got, and, for my generation, it was like Monty Python was for a later generation; we could go around quoting large chunks of it. Beyond the Fringe entered our vocabulary, but it also helped to shift attitudes. It fostered a mood of irreverence and disrespect for authority. One of the most famous items was a parody of Harold Macmillan by Peter Cook; we had not seen a living prime minister lampooned as directly as that. After Beyond the Fringe, everyone was doing it. It saturated British culture and was seized on by television, radio and magazines like Private Eye, whereas even the great plays, like Look Back in Anger and Waiting for Godot, didn’t permeate the culture in the same way. I’ve never encountered people going around quoting Look Back in Anger to each other in a way that I can still quote most of the script of Beyond the Fringe.

Video 1

You said you saw football in Edinburgh as well as low comedy and high art. In your review of The Boy in the Dress last week, you alluded to Britpop. The whole culture comes into a theatre review. Is that important to you?

I think it is. You need a wide frame of cultural reference. The critics I admire are often those that do bring in political references, cultural references. As a critic, you need to know something about the cinema, music, visual arts . . . I was lucky because, in the 1970s and 1980s, I used to present a topical arts programme on Radio 4, Kaleidoscope, which meant I was constantly going to art exhibitions, seeing films and reading books. The BBC helped to widen my cultural education. I still have huge areas of ignorance, the most prominent being popular music. The other day I went to review & Juliet, which is a jukebox musical full of popular music that’s been recorded by everybody. The audience around me was going wild with excitement at hearing their much-loved tunes. I sat there not really knowing most of the music. Although I did make a Britpop reference in The Boy in the Dress, that was through diligent research more than instinctive knowledge. I’m very bad at popular music, which people are very quick to point out. But I do like classical music and I do like the visual arts and I read voraciously. It’s important for critics to have a reasonable frame of reference, but you can’t know everything.

Video 2

You can’t know everything, but a critic is sort of expected to know everything. Even if you confined yourself to watching adaptations, you could be writing about versions of trashy movies from the 1980s or high-art versions of eighteenth-century novels.

But one of the pleasures of being a critic is the need to be a quick-change artist and do research almost day by day. Each day, we have a fresh challenge. I spend a lot of time going to the video library and watching films I haven’t seen. If there’s an adaptation of The Man in the White Suit, I go back to the film before going to see it, just as I’d go back to Nicholas Nickleby if there was a stage adaptation.

One of the pleasures of being a critic is we’re always having to educate ourselves, and the job is never complete.

To return to the question of experience: in some ways, you’re always experiencing things anew, so it doesn’t really matter that you knew Jonathan Miller in 1960 because, actually, what matters today is Greta Thunberg or yesterday’s football score.

I would include in this politics as well. One of my fascinations is with post-war British politics. I wrote a book called State of the Nation which tried to link the theatre and politics. It started with a hunch, because I kept seeing plays that seemed to be about the state of Britain and I wondered if there was a link. I was staggered to go back to 1945 and find British writers had been writing nonstop about who we are as a nation. Theatre reflects the politics—and the politics, sometimes, nudges the theatre in certain directions. I’ve been preoccupied with that interaction.

In your Jonathan Miller piece, you said you were friendly with him until you fell out after your review of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Is it an occupational hazard as a critic to lose friends?

Is it an occupational hazard. People in theatre sometimes see you as a natural ally, and, then, if they do work that you don’t like, they become enraged or feel betrayed by you. I knew Jonathan Miller not intimately, but I’d done a lot of radio with him and we’d chatted frequently. We started to get rather distant when he was at the National Theatre and attacked Peter Hall, the director of the National Theatre, vocally and obsessively. I was critical of that, but it was that production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which did everything possible to undermine the poetry and the magic, that changed things.

I remember getting a New Year’s Day card from Jonathan Miller saying, “For goodness’ sake, desist from giving us your foul pork scratchings.” And then he would give an interview, saying, “The trouble with British theatre is you’re not reviewed by your peers, you’re reviewed by people like Michael Billington.” I became a handy bête noir, a symbol of all he disliked about the critical establishment. I bear him no grudge; I just feel it’s strange that directors (and it’s directors more than actors and writers) feel let down by you.

The same thing happened with Trevor Nunn, whom I’d known even better than Jonathan Miller and worked with when he was at the Royal Shakespeare Company. When he ran the National Theatre, I thought he was doing too many musicals and I said so many times. I gather, Trevor was not very pleased by this, and an estrangement began, but that’s the price you pay for being a critic.

Is the other side of it that when you champion somebody, in your case, Harold Pinter, you can get too close to your heroes?

With Harold Pinter, it was the reverse process because Harold and I had a frosty relationship for many years. There is a famous play of his, called Betrayal, which, when it first appeared in 1978, I gave a coruscating review and said it was Harold Pinter reverting to the adultery play about well-off people in Hampstead. I said it was a betrayal of his talents. Pinter collected an award for Betrayal at the Society of London Theatre Awards for best play and he stood up and said, “I must be the most surprised person in this room to get this award . . . [Pause] . . . with the possible exception of Michael Billington.” He spat out the words and a thousand heads turned towards me.

So we had this edgy relationship and then, out of the blue, came an invitation to have lunch with him and a publisher to talk about doing a short political book about him. Over lunch, it became an invitation to write his biography. Once he began to trust you, he gave you his total trust. I was very lucky, I got to know him well. Did I become too close to be an objective critic of his work? Possibly so. But I did the book because I admired his work (I came to understand what Betrayal was about as well), and even when I was writing the book, I was critical of some of the productions of his work, what directors were doing to it. I still thought the man himself had a fundamental integrity.

Theatre is a social event, it happens at social times, you bump into people . . .

One of the good things about living in London is that it is this amorphous hole, and I can slip back to my home in Chiswick and not meet any theatre people (except those that live in Chiswick) for months at a time. I can go years without seeing, say, the director of the Royal Court, although I’m reviewing their output consistently. One tends to have a nodding acquaintanceship with people who run the National or the RSC, but you’re rarely on intimate terms with them. My true friends in the theatre are probably about two or three.

One thing about being a critic of my age, and one of the reasons it is good to stop at 80, is because you do tend to get softer in your approach. When you are younger, you are more abrasive. You’re not afraid to show your anger. I remember Kenneth Tynan on television saying one of the reasons he gave up being a critic is, with age, you realise there are more important things to do than say the plays of William Douglas-Home were trash. He said you realise that he, like you, is mortal and you share an impending death. I wouldn’t put it quite as melodramatically as that, but, with age, I get more tolerant of failure.

The only thing I’m intolerant of is cynicism in the theatre; people putting on a production with no fundamental belief in it. To quote Pauline Kael, the greatest sin in all the arts is to aim low and miss. Aim high and miss, you’re fine.

One of the fears I have had as a critic is I would become cynical or feel I’d seen it all before, that I’d be jaded. You seem to have maintained your enthusiasm.

Well, I hope I haven’t become jaded. The theatre is always evolving. It’s never static. It has been going through tumultuous changes in the last four to five years in two obvious areas. One is gender. I grew up in a theatre dominated by male dramatists and male directors. The theatre was basically organised and run by men. We’re now at a stage, thank God, that theatres are being run by women as well as men, and where plays are being re-gendered week in, week out. Race and ethnicity is the other area. We’ve long gone past the point when roles were assigned to strict ethnic rules. It would be astonishing to see a classical play in Britain now without black and Asian actors in it. These things seem to me admirable. What I’m saying is theatre is never still, it’s always on the move.

The difficultly I have found is knowing when to get off the merry-go-round. This job is impossible to give up because there’s always something coming up next week or next month. As I look at the calendar for 2020, I think, “My God, there’s a new Tom Stoppard play! Oh my goodness, there’s a new production of Uncle Vanya in the West End! There’s a new play by Lucy Kirkwood! Am I not going to be able to review these?” By my own decision, I’m not. It’s a compulsive, addictive job, and it’s very difficult to break the addiction because you always need another shot. My life has been enriched by a succession of fantastic evenings in the theatre.

That word “enriched” is important because what you could have said about gender and race (and I’ve heard reactionary critics say this) is “Why can’t they do a play without it being mucked around with, why can’t they do it as it was done in my youth?” You haven’t done that.

Well, no, because I accept the need for change, and I accept the principle. That doesn’t mean blanket endorsement for every example. I do sometimes see productions where I don’t quite see the rationale. The principle of re-gendering plays is totally acceptable, but I’m suspicious of quotas in the arts. If you say there has to be a 50/50 split, I think that’s too inflexible. For example, the RSC did a production of Troilus and Cressida just over a year ago. That’s a play about the homo-erotic links between two male armies. If you have Achilles, for example, played by a woman, it confuses what the play is saying. So, it doesn’t always work, but the principal is sound.

Video 3

You’ve been criticised for your dislike of directors’ theatre and a director imposing an idea on a playwright’s vision. Those arguments have been well rehearsed, but if you read your reviews from the 1970s in your anthology One Night Stands, you were seeing theatre that sounds as avant garde as the stuff that’s around now. So, it’s not as if you haven’t had the experience of a wide range of theatrical approaches.

Yes, there was a time when I was very high on the great European directors: Ingmar Bergman, Giorgio Strehler, Peter Stein and Peter Brook. Although they offered new visions of classical plays, those directors didn’t actually distort them or rewrite them. What we’re now moving into is a culture where directors, certainly in the U.K., feel free to rewrite a play from top to bottom. For example, one of my bêtes noir, a production of The Wild Duck by Robert Icke, who admitted it was after Ibsen and not the strict text, but, at the same time, he rewrote it in ways that I thought were superfluous and nonsensical. It’s a play that needs no tinkering with, I think. Robert Icke symbolises to me the idea that the director is the supreme being. The great directors—and I’ve mentioned four of them—are interpreters of these plays. They don’t see themselves as imposing themselves on the plays. They are excavating the plays to find their true meaning.

Yet the example of you giving a five-star review to Robert Icke’s recent production of The Doctor suggests you have a flexibility of mind or generosity of spirit that says the next show could be the one.

Although he did change the text of The Doctor, he didn’t alter its premise. He enlarged on the original text and brought in extra themes. Either I’m inconsistent or I’m flexible, whichever word you choose to use. I hope I haven’t sounded too dogmatic because I’m against dogmatic statements in the theatre in general. There are always genius exceptions. I’ve said I’m suspicious of a director seeking to have a creative role, but, then, I think back to Joan Littlewood, who was a kind of genius and did Oh! What a Lovely War, which was her vision. Whatever I say, I can always think quickly of an exception. As a critic, you have to have opinions, but you also have to be sufficiently open to have those opinions blown to smithereens.

The history of British post-war theatre has been of playwrights who have come along, shattered all the critical categories and been misunderstood. Even before Sarah Kane’s Blasted, there was Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Edward Bond’s Saved. In all art, there is a moment when the artist is way ahead of the critic and the audience and critics are always going to be found wanting.

The way your career has gone at the Guardian, you are the one who is expected to do the West End, the National Theatre, the RSC, the mainstream (if I can use the word) even of fringe theatres. Do you have any regrets about being funnelled into a more limited range of theatre?

No. First of all, it was my choice. One of the great things about writing for the Guardian is I’ve been allowed to choose, week by week, for most of the 48 years, the plays I go and review. As a critic, you are what you review and you’re making a statement by that. I would slightly challenge your premise because I seem to spend quite a bit of my life sitting in dank cellars or rooms over pubs, it’s just that with age, you get a little more selective. In London, there’s a hierarchy of fringe theatres, and you get to know where the good stuff is. I probably have neglected some theatres, but I don’t feel I’ve been negligent. What I’ve tried to do throughout my life is balance. Yes, obviously do the establishment and the mainstream theatre but also get out of London. It angered me recently when I was accused by a blogger of being a metropolitan critic because I spend a lot of my life on trains and in hotels and I like going out of London. But you can’t see everything.

To keep your muscles flexed as a critic, if you see pantomime one day, a musical the next, a fringe thing the next means you’re in good fighting shape to cope with anything that’s thrown at you.

I like your metaphor “fighting shape” because I’ve always argued, as a critic, you have to be in training and match-fit for the occasion. You have to be ready for the event. The worst thing you can be as a critic is tired, listless, hungry, drunk . . . Over the years, I’ve disciplined myself more and more. I work in the morning and I try to take time off in the afternoon. A sleep is what I recommend between 2 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. Then a cup of tea and you’re ready to go out. The worst days are when you’re running round the whole of London all day and, then, you arrive at the theatre at 7 p.m., sink into the seat in a state of exhaustion, and you’re just not ready for the occasion. One of the reasons I am giving up is I was beginning to feel occasionally I wasn’t quite up for the event. And you have to be up for the event four or five times a week. If you’re not, it’s time to scale back.

Did you know John Simon?

Never met him. He was hated by actors. I’m all for being honest and truthful, but he carried that into offensive remarks about women’s looks. These days, it would be impossible for a critic to do that because people are very wary about personal remarks. You can indicate a person is miscast or unsuited to the role without being directly offensive about their face or their legs.

David Hare once said I’d always been soft on actors. I don’t think I’ve been soft on actors, but I’m aware of the vulnerability of actors. That came partly from working in the theatre, which I did for a couple of years. I saw how actors would bear the brunt of any criticism because the director and writer are long gone. The actors have to go out there every night and make the play work. If I don’t like an actor’s work, I tend not to mention it—unless they’re playing Hamlet!

M. Billington: “David Hare [photo] once said I’d always been soft on actors. I don’t think I’ve been soft on actors, but I’m aware of the vulnerability of actors.” Photo: Wikipedia

As a coda, the most angry, hurt, wounded letters I’ve had over the years have been from artists whose work I have not reviewed. If you don’t cover their work, they feel marginalised, ignored and diminished. They’d almost rather have a negative review than no review at all.

What changes in criticism have you witnessed in your time?

The technology has changed. Anything is better than barking a review down a telephone to a copytaker who couldn’t care less. The worst was being in an area where there were very few public phones and having to hunt around a railway station to look for a workable phone. The internet is a blessing.

One of the things that’s changed is that, when I was growing up, criticism was seen more as an essay; an essay that could take in lots of references. Criticism has become more utilitarian. It’s got to fulfil a function of guidance as to whether a show is worth seeing or not—star ratings are one aspect of this. Reviews are shorter and they’re much more to do with “is this show worth seeing or not worth seeing?” There is less room for digression, speculation and the essayistic approach.

The concept of the critic as artist has pretty much vanished. It’s a vain thing to say, of course, but I think we should still aspire to that. We are reviewing one art, but we are trying to create another one. 


*Mark Fisher is a theatre critic for the Guardian, a former editor of the List magazine and a freelance feature writer. He is the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (Bloomsbury) and How to Write About Theatre (Bloomsbury).

Copyright © 2019 Mark Fisher
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