I am a reader of essays and commentary, whose effects range from the exhilarating to the numbing. The qualities I respond to – some, not all – include these ten, in no particular order.
Gush and hyperbole flow freely in a culture in which expenditure on public relations out-strips journalism by a factor of six to one. Praise that is rooted in authority is not easy.
This is how John Peter saw the lead performance in Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter:
Emma Fielding gives a performance of technical virtuosity and hard, unsparing emotional self-exploration. The accent is excellent, and the trim body-language suggests someone seriously, if not very sophisticatedly, sexual who needs to be seen as energetic, efficient, serious and relentlessly bright. You assume that she works out, regularly and ferociously.
Fielding has also perfected the American professional woman’s smile: purposeful, aggressively sincere but slightly vacuous. Under it, she gradually reveals a profound moral and intellectual unease.
ELABORATION, NOT INSULT
An unfavourable review should take time, and effort, to get the selection, the detail and the balance right. London’s theatre on occasion pays out, and earns, big money by bringing Hollywood A-listers to Shaftesbury Avenue. Kenneth Lonergan’s play This is Our Youth had three considerable actors from film. John Peter again took trouble to explain the demerits:
The three stars’ … CVs suggest that they have no stage experience, and if this is true, they are doing pretty well. Each personality is clearly defined: the actors have got the picture, and they can put it across … all three have good stage presence, which is a big advantage, but their bodies seem untrained. They do the same set of gestures … […] likes to saw the air with his arms, and keeps bending his trunk forward when he is angry, which is often. None of them is very good at acting against the others, at handling response and silence, which is why the performances sometimes lack continuity, as if they were acting in takes.
CONCISION & COMPRESSION
Lyn Gardner wrote of Waiting for Godot that ‘it is both non-specific and incredibly concrete, endlessly elusive and yet universal.’ That is Beckett and it is done with twelve words.
WIT & PLAYFULNESS
Wales Arts Review did not much take to BBC Wales’ selection of authors for a series on great Welsh writers. Not a good year for the Corporation, sympathised the writer, ‘victimised, demonised and belittled. And, now, it seems it has had its dictionary stolen.’
Ouch. But nice.
INSIGHT & GETTING TO THE ESSENTIAL
Pauline Kael belonged to a small group of critics, whose every written word deserved re-issue in book form. The books are riddled with sharpness of detail and distinctiveness of observation. A line from Trash, Art and the Movies is characteristic:
In foreign movies what is most often mistaken for ‘quality’ is an imitation of earlier movie art or a derivation from respectable, approved work in the other arts.
AN EYE & EAR FOR THE TELLING DETAIL
The telling detail speaks volumes in suggesting the whole. John Peter was in Mold to see Hedydd Dylan play Eliza Doolittle:
Ms Dylan also employs some sharp physical detail as the ingénue in the Wimpole Street study with a jaw that juts and a lower lip drawn under her teeth. Shaw specifically wrote ‘horribly dirty’ and dirty she indeed is, as well as scratching actively after a flea or a louse.
In 2002 Philip French saw Bertrand Tavernier’s Laissez-Passer. His review begins with a summary of the French film industry during the years of the Occupation and the escape by a few like Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier and René Clair. Before addressing the film itself, and its predecessors the Sorrow and the Pity, Lacombe Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants the review includes:
I was almost in tears when listening to the great Jewish designer, Alexandre Trauner, a fellow juror at Cannes in 1986, telling me of hiding out in the hills above Nice and sneaking down at night past German guards to the Victorine Studios to examine his great outdoor sets for Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. However, at the Liberation several filmmakers were jailed, a few were barred from working, and the film historian Robert Brasillach was executed.
Christopher Hart went to see Joe Penhall’s Landscape with Weapon and wrote:
This play’s political sensibilities strike you not so much as right or wrong, but as seriously lacking in complexity, maturity and breadth; emerging from a tiny, tiny little world where everybody thinks exactly the same, agrees with each other ardently and credulously reads the same newspaper. It is not a good recipe for political theatre.
Agree or not, he has a view.
AA Gill expressed frustration on the constrained length of series like The Hour:
BBC drama needs to become both more and less parsimonious about its productions; less authentic and obsessively realist, with less set- and actor-dressing, and more space given to scripts and good projects. The runs of British dramas are almost always too short, so the plots are squeezed into gaudy boxes of costumes and National Trust furniture.
SKEWERING BIAS & FALSITY
Philip French was already a critic during the period of the pirate radio stations’ flourishing. The Boat that Rocked he terms ‘mirthless, feelgood farce’ that depicts Britain as ‘an infantilised country in a series of cringe-making vignettes’.
The adversary in the film is ‘cabinet minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), half Raymond Huntley-style Whitehall warrior, half Nazi functionary. His stiff-necked assistant is called Twatt, a somewhat unusual name that amuses Curtis no end.’
French puts to rights the makers’ falsification of politics. Of the commercial radio stations: ‘Harold Wilson’s Labour government sought to suppress them, its chief agent being the postmaster general, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, then as now something of a zealot.’