In the last week we have had definitive surveys of the best albums, worst albums, most miserable albums and most overrated albums. It is a perfect indication of the frenetic illogicality that goes into these surveys that Fleetwood Mac's Seventies album Rumours makes the top 20 in both the best albums of the century and the most overrated albums. In other words the same people that mock it as overrated then solemnly go on to overrate it.
Rock music produces more "best of lists" and surveys than most art forms, but the others are catching up. And it seems we can't get enough of them. We devour numerous best films, best composers, best sitcoms and best books compilations, with even a tiny exercise by one publishing house managing to grab headlines in two continents. In preparation is a list of the best plays of the century.
This I know, because I have been asked by the National Theatre to give my nominations for the 10 most "significant" 20th century plays. (I'm pleased to note that art form linguistic snobbery remains. Pop may have its best; but in theatre you have to be "significant".) Only now do I see what a fiendishly difficult and all but meaningless exercise it is.
Best, greatest, most significant ... how to define. A play like Look Back In Anger should be in everyone's list because it helped to change the nature of 20th-century theatre. But it won't be in my list because it has flaws as a piece of dramatic writing.
One respected drama critic is putting in J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls on the strength of an innovative and radical current production. And a play is what you see on stage. But should a play be judged on the strengths and weaknesses of one production? Tricky. And of course we all want to impress a touch of idiosyncrasy on the list - a personal choice that no one else might have. So out goes Look Back In Anger from my list and in comes Brian Friel's poignant and evocative Dancing At Lughnasa. Significant, in my book, means significant to me as well as to the nation.
Then, with all these surveys, there is the memory problem. I can't actually name that many plays written between 1900 and 1920. I feel churlish about writing off a couple of decades, but at least I'm not writing off the whole of history as happened in a ludicrous BBC survey about sitcoms in which viewers not only put Men Behaving Badly at the top, but had contemporary shows filling all the leading positions. Hancock, Steptoe, Alf Garnett and the Likely Lads were all victims of the peculiar characteristic of best of century surveys which decrees that the century started during our lifetimes, or even during the last few months.
Even in rock music, a relatively modern art form, memory lapses occur in these compilations. I can confess to a youthful indiscretion of once being rather keen on the rock group Slade. They were pretty big at the time. Indeed they had more records enter the charts straight at number one than The Beatles, no mean achievement.
But, with none of their songs featuring in any contemporary movies, they have been forgotten and never appear in any "best of" compilations. Equally, the great Sixties' TV comic Marty Feldman is always absent from the comedy lists because for 30 years his shows never came out on video, and the memory of "best of" compilers is fickle.
And then, of course, received critical wisdom plays a part in the compiling of a "best of" list. James Joyce's Ulysses and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings appear at the top of every book compilation going. I suspect more people have voted for them than have actually read them. It's not strictly necessary to sample the wares oneself. As Professor Simon Frith, who has lectured about pop music at university level, says of album surveys: "The younger person will list records they've bought most recently. The older will pick a record they neither own nor expect to listen to ever again."
So, beware reading anything of lasting cultural importance into the "best of" lists. Laurence Olivier in his last years appeared in a Granada TV series entitled The Best Play of the Year that featured a particular play from a particular year each week. Such plays as Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party may or may not have been the best plays of their particular years. What is certain is that they and all the others in the series had a marvellous cameo part for an old man. We all have our own reasons for deciding that something is the best.Reuse content