Kenneth Tynan: a life by Dominic Shellard

An uncritical life of the theatre's critical peacock
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The Independent Culture

Theatre is a magnet for flamboyant characters, but it's rare that a drama critic aspires to centre-stage, to rub shoulders with other celebrities and grab column inches. Yet Kenneth Tynan - legendary critic of the Evening Standard and The Observer between 1951 and 1963, and dramaturg at Laurence Olivier's National Theatre in the 1960s - managed to do just that .

A famous poseur, who held cigarettes between his third and fourth fingers, Tynan also penned some of post-war theatre's most dazzling reviews. Much as his put-downs sizzle on the page, do we really need another book about him? His second wife, Kathleen, has already published a biography and his letters. His first wife, Elaine Dundy, published her own memoirs in 2001. Tynan's diaries came out as recently as last year.

Dominic Shellard argues that such offerings downplay Tynan's early years. These were certainly extraordinary. His father, a Warrington worthy called Sir Peter Peacock, had two families at the same time: an official wife and a secret lover, Letitia Rose Tynan, in Birmingham. Born out of wedlock in 1927, Kenneth Peacock Tynan was the latter's precocious son. At six, he was already keeping a diary. At grammar school in Birmingham, he wore a ladies' raincoat and languidly smoked Brazilian fags. During a school debate, he extolled the joys of masturbation. On another occasion, he advocated repeal of the laws against gays and abortion. Not bad for the grey 1940s.

Tynan's later career is well-known. After failing as a director and actor, he became a star journalist, writing classic reviews of plays such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Shellard's biography, which is both thoroughly researched and eminently readable, concentrates on the 1950s criticism, but sadly never questions his hero's genius.

Granted, Tynan was a great read, but was he any good as a critic? He may have been triumphantly right about Osborne, but he was wrong about Rodney Ackland's The Pink Room, Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Beckett's Endgame, Ionesco's The Lesson, Pinter's The Birthday Party. He was wrong (but amusing) about Vivien Leigh; wrong (and trite) about theatre in the round. You get the picture.

Even when Tynan was right, you wonder about his rhetoric. When he declared that "I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger," the daring of the phrase blinds you to its sheer narcissism. And to the fact that not everyone really wants to be loved by a self-obsessed sadist and wife-beater.

However hagiographic, Shellard fields some cracking anecdotes. The first half of the book is engrossing; the second, more superficial and much sadder. Tynan's provocative use of "fuck" on TV was a cultural milestone, but his record of finding new writers at the National was poor, his Oh! Calcutta! sex revue was limp, and his final years were spent in misery and failure. Despite this, Shellard's book is all applause and no reflection. Tynanophiles will love it, but the rest of us might wish to provide our own, more sceptical commentary.

The reviewer is the author of 'In-Yer-Face Theatre' (Faber)