LAST NIGHT

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
One of the most common misconceptions about critics is that they should review process rather than results. "If they only knew how hard we'd all worked," groan the wounded practitioners when they read a harsh review. The reaction is entirely understandable but it still misses the point about the essential cruelty of criticism - essential both in the sense that it is at the heart of activity (it does have a heart, honestly), and that the activity would be meaningless without it. The fact that critics themselves can also share the misconception was beautifully demonstrated by The Works (Sun BBC2), which recorded the somewhat wizened fruit of an experiment in which four theatre critics tried their hand at directing.

The film centred on the experience of Nicholas de Jongh and James Christopher, perhaps because the others had sensibly excluded the cameras, or because these two provided such a neat study in contrast. In any case, no producer alive could have resisted the lure of De Jongh's contribution to the affair, a performance of petulant self-importance which was perfect down to the very last detail (the last detail in question being a baseball cap worn with peak backwards. Almost too excruciating, that). An early cut, from a description of De Jongh's task to a West End poster reading "The funniest night out in London" suggested that the director knew very well that he had hit paydirt.

We had better begin by giving De Jongh fair credit for courage because he did not emerge with much else from what followed. Things started badly with his refusal to attend a Director's Masterclass laid on for the novices: "I'm going to go to Richard Wilson and James Rouse-Evans, they have 20 times this girl's reputation," he snapped, quivering with a strange pre- emptive indignation. There followed some squirmingly delicious scenes: De Jongh assuring his uneasy cast that out of print he was just a pussycat; power battles with Rosemary Leach, his star, conducted by means of glacial endearments and brittle joviality; a little spasm of panic while inscribing good luck cards for the cast (could he be the first director to write "Break a leg" and really mean it?). "I don't give a f**k about the reviews," he snarled to camera on the first night, but he did, of course. He ticked off Stephen Daldry (who had also job-swapped to review De Jongh's production) with sarcastic condescension: "We know you can get by on charm and intelligence when you're a theatre director, but when you're a theatre critic you have to do a bit more work." And charm, you thought, can obviously be dispensed with entirely.

The critics were also the notional baddies in The South Bank Show's film about David Helfgott (Sun ITV), the pianist who was the subject of the hit movie Shine ("notional baddies", I think, because they declined to review the process - a human triumph over upbringing and nervous illness - and concentrated on the musical results). Shine was an emotionally effective but nonetheless meretricious drama, which - quite apart from its artistic rearrangement of fact - also peddled shallow myths about artistic inspiration, and while Leo Burley's film didn't resolve the debates it provoked (nor the violent disagreements over Helfgott's London concerts), it did offer much intriguing material to reflect on - not least the interviews with the pianist himself.

Melvyn Bragg (who looked distinctly uncomfortable as his interviewee snuggled lovingly beneath his chin) described the experience as like listening to "James Joyce on speed", but the image that occurred to me was that of a faulty tape-recorder: sometimes Helfgott threw out chunks of half- digested therapy ("but you mustn't talk about it because it's not your fault - it's your father's"), sometimes brief clues to the nature of his marriage ("but I mustn't say anything because Gillian doesn't like me to say that"). Footage of his concerts showed the audience beaming at him with the same adoring condescension which parents direct at children in a nativity play. They hadn't come to listen to the music... they'd come to be in the film, playing the appealing role of people who could recognize genius, even when it came in disguise.

Comments