Written for The Collective Review, 1 March 2010
The national newspapers’ habit of replacing their retired head theatre critics with columnists and political sketchwriters is pretty worrying for those of us on the bottom rungs of the theatre criticism career ladder, as I pointed out in January, when The Times announced Libby Purves would be replacing Benedict Nightingale in their top spot.
Well, it turns out up-and-comers like me aren’t the only ones concerned by the trend: some of the country’s most influential theatre critics also expressed reservations about the appointments last Friday, at Theatre Critics In The Spotlight, a panel discussion hosted by The Student Workshop of Royal Holloway, University of London (pictured).
Even before the panel hosts – Royal Holloway lecturer and Variety theatre critic Karen Fricker, and Student Workshop Creative Learning Officer Sheryl Hill – formally posed the question, panellist Mark Shenton – critic for the Sunday Express and daily blogger for The Stage – repeatedly brought up the topic.
In Shenton’s view, the trend is a cost-saving measure, symptomatic of the problems facing the newspaper and media industry as a whole. His fellow panellist Kate Bassett, lead critic for the Independent on Sunday, pithily summarised those problems, saying, “Newspapers don’t know how to make money any more”.
Shenton explained that papers could avoid paying an extra salary by simply adding theatre criticism to the duties of an existing member of staff, adding that editors no longer consider theatre criticism to be a full-time occupation.
Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times recalled – enlighteningly, for those of us relatively new to the business – the appointment of former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Michael Portillo as theatre critic for the New Statesman, which he considers to be the beginning of the trend. Worryingly, he also pointed out that his own promotion to lead critic at the FT is the only instance in living memory of a retiring lead critic being replaced by their number two at the same paper – most second-stringers have to defect to a different publication in order to secure a top slot.
Lyn Gardner, critic and blogger for The Guardian, concluded the discussion with this bleak yet matter-of-fact premonition of the industry’s future: “I fully expect my job will one day be done by Katie Price”.