ARTS / The afterlife of a critic
Sunday 30 October 1994
Kenneth Tynan called Sid Field the 'bumpkin droll', a genius who would have made a saint laugh. - Benedict Nightingale on 'What a Performance', 'Times', 14 Oct (The words) all come out clear if somewhat odd reminding me of Ken Tynan's comment on an especially eccentric performance by Ralph Richardson: 'a mode of speech that democratically regards all syllables as equal'. - Robert Cushman on Bryan Ferry's version of 'These Foolish Things', 'Independent on Sunday', 9 Oct Ken Tynan once said rather wistfully that she (Siobhan McKenna) would be one of 'our best emotional actresses if only she'd stop being emotional once in a while'. - Jeananne Crowley reviewing 'Siobhan: A Memoir of an Actress', 'Irish Times', 8 Oct Tynan called Birmingham a 'cemetery without walls'. Had he lived to see Frank Skinner, he might have christened him its most irreverent grave digger. - William Cook, 'Guardian', 5 Oct The toughness of the job (playing Sid Field) is evident from Kenneth Tynan's 1950 comment on Field as 'not explicable in terms of scripts . . . Mr Field's more wayward triumphs are almost impossible to pin down.' - Steve Punt on David Suchet, 'Sunday Times', 2 Oct THE CRITICS' CRITIC Michael Billington, theatre critic, Guardian, 1972: 'His influence on me and my generation was enormous. I went to Oxford in '58 and every activity was shadowed by Tynan whether it was drama or journalism. He was the role model for our generation. He made criticism seem glamorous, exciting and central to the health of the theatre. That moral dimension was his cardinal importance as a critic. The relation of theatre to society was absolutely crucial, the idea that you didn't just judge a play on aesthetic considerations but by how accurately it reflected society. His voluptuous style was something to aspire to.'
Clive James, television critic, Observer, 1972- 82, from the preface to Visions Before Midnight, 1977: 'When, he asked, would I be turning my critical gaze away from television and towards its proper object, the theatre? Never, was my reply. . . . Tynan was thunderstruck: surely I didn't pretend that television could equal the theatre for immediacy, the feeling of occasion, the tang of life lived? 'I still get a thrill every time the curtain goes up,' he said. 'I get a thrill every time it goes down,' I replied . . . I thought very highly of Tynan's theatre criticism, especially his earlier work: He That Plays the King I had always regarded as a magic book. But I couldn't stand the theatre. Conversely Tynan thought little of television, but was generous enough to be interested in what I had to say about it. He said he hoped that I would be publishing a selection of my pieces when the time came.
' 'A television critic would have to know everything,' Tynan objected, 'and who knows everything?' I was lost for an answer at the time but have found one since. It isn't necessary to know everything - just to remember that nobody else does either.'
Tom Stoppard, giving the address at Tynan's memorial service, 18 September 1980: '. . . His paragraphs - paragraphs were the units of his prose, not sentences - were written to outlast the witness.'
(To Tynan's children) 'For those of us who were working in the English-speaking theatre during those years, for those of us who shared his time, your father was part of the luck we had.'
Charles Spencer, theatre critic, Daily Telegraph, 1991: 'Reading his great reviews I'm filled with a mixture of admiration and rancorous envy. The writing is so sharp, the detail so illuminating that great performances seem to have been miraculously preserved from the ravages of time. And he did a marvellous job in waking up a somnolent theatrical establishment and championing new work. But his career seems to have run backwards, from great early achievement to the trifling fatuity of Oh] Calcutta] I have Tynan on my shelves, so he's available where other critics of his time are not. And he's often bloody good. He was often wrong - about Brendan Behan for instance - but always compulsively readable. He brought a passion to criticism which wasn't there before. He's up there with greats like Hazlitt.'
Anthony Lane, film critic, New Yorker, 1993: 'The one thing you can learn from Tynan - it would be pointless to copy his manner of personal approach - is to follow his method. He never jumped to conclusions: he arrived at them.
He's the one person who gives ground to his judgements. Tynan therefore cultivated his descriptive powers. When he was describing Olivier and Gielgud, he relays the sensation of being there. It's more important than any particular verdict. Nobody had done this before. He was lucky to be around in the Sixties when there was a whole generation of new playwrights and when the great film stars were still alive. He could write about Bogart and Welles, and he could write about Stoppard.'
Allison Pearson, television critic, Independent on Sunday, 1992: 'I keep a copy of Profiles by my bed, and I'd keep it under my pillow if I thought that prose style could be transmitted by dreams. Whenever I'm wondering what's the point of my job, I turn to him. As soon as you've read a couple of sentences - about Morecambe and Wise or anything - he tells you what you're supposed to be doing. Most critics won't write a sentence in their life as good as he wrote every day. He's the top of the mountain.'
Interviews and research by Rosanna de Lisle
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