Smoking gun

Kenneth Tynan was a taboo-breaker and spanking aficionado. But above all he was a critic. A revolutionary one. A critic who created as much as he destroyed. Theatre writer Paul Taylor assesses his legacy while, Corin Redgrave and Rob Brydon - who play Tynan on stage and screen - review the reviewer
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He had been the dandy king of post-war Oxford - a latter-day Wilde who cocked a ferociously effete snook at the drab decencies of those austere times, while clad in the kind of costuming (cloak with blood-red lining; gold shirts; bottle-green suits, etc) not normally associated with heterosexual boys just up from Birmingham. Even as an undergraduate, he'd deployed self-promotion techniques (camera-unctuous birthday boat trips down the Thames) that now look like early portents of our own celebrity culture. For a heady (if brief) period from 1952 to 1963, he'd established himself as the greatest critic of the English stage since George Bernard Shaw, and he spoke with the voice of his generation when he lavished praise on John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. He'd gone on to be the first - and highly influential - literary manager of Laurence Olivier's new National Theatre, where (among many other things) he'd nurtured the talents of the young Tom Stoppard and campaigned with incisive eloquence for the aboli

He had been the dandy king of post-war Oxford - a latter-day Wilde who cocked a ferociously effete snook at the drab decencies of those austere times, while clad in the kind of costuming (cloak with blood-red lining; gold shirts; bottle-green suits, etc) not normally associated with heterosexual boys just up from Birmingham. Even as an undergraduate, he'd deployed self-promotion techniques (camera-unctuous birthday boat trips down the Thames) that now look like early portents of our own celebrity culture. For a heady (if brief) period from 1952 to 1963, he'd established himself as the greatest critic of the English stage since George Bernard Shaw, and he spoke with the voice of his generation when he lavished praise on John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. He'd gone on to be the first - and highly influential - literary manager of Laurence Olivier's new National Theatre, where (among many other things) he'd nurtured the talents of the young Tom Stoppard and campaigned with incisive eloquence for the abolition of stage censorship - a goal eventually achieved in 1968. His was a career that was nothing if not glittering and iconic. But then, for reasons that are depressingly implicit in some of the above, the life of Kenneth Peacock Tynan (1927-80) began to unravel.

Partly, his difficulties were political in origin. Behind Olivier's back, the board of the National Theatre appointed Peter Hall as artistic director designate in 1973 and it was immediately clear that Tynan would not be welcome in the new regime - indeed, his departure was one of the principal conditions of the Hall package. And partly, his difficulties had a psycho-sexual basis. The demobbed nabob's life became split between his spouse, Kathleen, and Nicole, a fellow spanking addict. Eventually, his congenital emphysema - and the predictable British backlash against a maverick who gave the word "fuck" its television debut - drove the great man into Californian exile. Not so much eyeless in Gaza as breathless in Santa Monica. Tynan's financial debts were such that he couldn't afford not to write, but he couldn't write without smoking and he couldn't both smoke and live - an asphyxiatingly vicious circle.

Strange reiterated patterns abound in Tynan's career. His daughter Tracy believed that his compulsive need to have a separate ongoing relationship with Nicole repeats the double life led by his father who divided his week and his personality into two mutually oblivious strands. From Monday to Wednesday, this figure was Sir Peter Peacock, a well-respected local politician and sometime Mayor of Warrington. For the rest of his schedule he resided in Birmingham as common-or-garden Peter Tynan, Consort of the future critic's mother. Kenneth's rather fabulously apposite middle name "Peacock" is a kind of coded acknowledgement of the paternal amphibiousness. Oscar Wilde had to put up with dull old "Fingal O'Flahertie Wills" as his middle monikers; he'd surely have given an arm and a leg to have "Peacock" strutting its stuff in his nomenclature.

It was in the last decade of his life that Tynan kept a diary, posthumously published in 2001. In an astute and generously empathetic review of this volume, David Hare posed the painfully pertinent question: "what does a great ex-drama critic do with the rest of his life?" The author of the Diaries writes, in one entry, that "The critic's job - at least nine-tenths of it - is to make way for the good by demolishing the bad. I wish I were back at work bulldozing." Indeed, Shaw's brilliantly impudent criticism had hacked a clearing in the Edwardian undergrowth expressly designed to accommodate the plays of one George Bernard Shaw. But Tynan, by contrast, continued to create more involving drama offstage than on, where his erotic revues Oh! Calcutta! and Carte Blanche were only a limp embodiment of firm-ish libertarian principles. His experiments with genre were actually livelier in the bedroom, at one point encompassing what one might term the fundamental farce (recorded in the Diaries) of subjecting his colon to the full rigours of an Indian dinner followed by a large glass of vodka injected into his anus, through a tube, by Nicole. Tynan quipped that his autobiography might be called Sans Taste. Given the anal fixations of the later years, another title which springs to this reader's mind is Enemas of Promise.

The great critic's posthumous predicament is fraught with paradoxes. Tynan's extraordinarily vivid and infectious reactions to dramatic art, immortalised in those Observer reviews, are all currently out of print. It's as the subject of dramatic art that he is increasingly seizing attention. London has already seen Smoking with Lulu, a play that concentrated on his intriguing, partially reciprocated passion for the silent screen goddess, Louise Brooks. Now concurrently clamouring for notice are two new pieces about him. Tynan, at the Arts Theatre, is a one-man show carved from the Diaries and spellbindingly played by Corin Redgrave who interprets rather than impersonates. The filleting of the Diaries has been very adroitly handled and the resulting Portrait of the Critic as an Ageing Man comes across as the humane, funny, stoic, farcical, afraid and yet somehow fearless work of art that Tynan never managed to put a frame round while he was alive. The sense of time seeping away into Proustian wastage is captured with elating economy: "Once I had not only talent, but what English people call 'character'. By which they mean the power to refrain. Now I have neither. I consider myself damned." In this late writing, a single beautifully positioned word often bestows the blessing of wry comedy on terminally bleak terrain. Consider the redemptive power of the adverb in "I buy two magazines devoted to colour pictures of female anuses and assiduously wank."

Meanwhile, soon to be broadcast, there's a BBC drama with a name that alludes to the title of one of Tynan's (badly argued) prose paeans to pornography. Starring Rob Brydon as the trendsetting cultural arbiter, In Praise of Hardcore charts Tynan's struggles with the stuffy NT board (personified by Lord Lyttelton) and his attempts to put erotic theory into practice with the production of Oh! Calcutta!. This piece is, almost to a fault, perkily ambivalent about the man, sometimes portraying Tynan as a rather po-faced proselytiser, given to pronouncements absurd or worse. "A humanist is someone who remembers the faces of the people he has spanked" is the kind of fatuous, borderline-pernicious statement that would merit a smacked bottom, if it weren't all too evident that that was what its utterer was angling for. Not a hiding to nothing but a hiding to, well, a good hiding.

Pauline Kael is the writer who constantly finds herself up on a plinth beside Tynan. The differences, though, are as instructive as the similarities. To be sure, they both had the essential trick of the supreme journalist/critic. They made you feel, as a fellow punter, that you simply had to know what they thought of a play or film as a vital step to knowing what you yourself thought of it. And both had the gift, brilliantly summarised by Tom Stoppard when talking on a TV documentary about Tynan, of making artists "want to be better". I had thought that the greatest compliment that could be paid to a practising critic was the one W H Auden rightly accorded Christopher Ricks (the man who once, by the way, described Tynan's TV "fuck" incident as "the primal name-drop"): "Reading Christopher Ricks' comments and observations convinces me that he is exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding." Stoppard's tribute to Tynan goes, handsomely, one better than this. It suggests that a great critic can be a pace-setter and a platonic ideal parent.

But as Tracy Tynan, the clear-eyed and clear-hearted daughter of his first marriage attests: her father suffered all the disadvantages of achieving critical pre-eminence in his youth. Kael was 49 by the time she got the call from The New Yorker. Tynan was almost two decades younger when, for two seasons, he functioned as the guest-critic of that periodical. You feel that she enjoyed all the benefits of a long immersion in ordinary life that were, by his own collusion, denied to the meteoric Tynan. His precocious book, He That Plays The King (published, when he was a mere 22, with a solicited introduction by another classic enfant terrible, Orson Welles) contains the rather touching prefatory remark: "When maturity overtakes me, I shall have a great many less important but weightier things to do than sit trembling in theatres." Like, as it turned out, sitting in the waiting rooms of spanking "clinics" in trembling anticipation of the cut-price theatre of S&M. A film about the career of Pauline Kael is almost bound, at some stage, to surface. I doubt, though, that there will be more than one such bio-piece, whereas it seems to me to be in the nature of the case that art-works based on the life of Kenneth Tynan will continue to proliferate.

Why, and what does that say about him? When contemplating Tynan's career, thoughts of Wilde inevitably obtrude. Wilde happened to be a genius who pioneered the idea that genius might be pumped into the life as well as the art. Tynan did not operate on quite that altitude, but had spasms of near-genius and he opted to affect that, given the choice, he would plump for "happiness" over achievement - a position that effectively evacuates the concept of criticism. Editors often say "Where is the new Tynan?" By this, I take it that they mean: when are we going to find someone who synthesises two types of reviewer? One of these is the doggedly campaigning back-seat driver who recognises that an excellent newspaper critic needs to perceive what is not happening as well as what is. The other is the shrewd, largely incorruptible, table-hopping, star-friendly party animal (represented by the late and much-missed Jack Tinker) who is as much a contribution to theatre as a commentator on it. If only, deluded editors believe, these two species could be crossed, the "new Tynan" would emerge.

This misses the point badly. It's not just that it leaves out of the equation the need for a prose mastery that combines, exactingly and glamorously, glamour and exactitude. It also fails to understand a crucial component of Tynan's power. In De Profundis, Wilde proclaimed: "I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards." Tynan could have made the same claim. Like Kael, he gathered his powers in readiness for the Next Big Thing (for her, Scorsese et al; for him, Osborne and gang) and when it arrived, he went with it like the wind. The brilliant journalist knows the extent to which this synchronicity can and cannot be willed. He and Kael were not just great critics; they half-made their extraordinary luck.

But Tynan, unlike Kael, is a story in himself. What kind of story? Cautionary tale? Allegory of a man who, living by the media, partly died by the media? Emblematic narrative of someone who enacts on the personal level what is happening on the political stage - in the sense that, like England, Tynan lost an empire when he left the Observer and struggled to find a role? We can all, with hindsight, play the game of "where did he make his biggest mistake?" My own hunch is that he should never have moved out of journalism. Sure, the National Theatre for which he had campaigned so strenuously was in some way the right berth for him. But there were drawbacks. As his friend, director Michael Blakemore said, there were almost sado-masochistic tensions in the relationship with Olivier. The great actor could not forgive Tynan the critical cruelty he had inflicted on his unstable first wife, Vivien Leigh (of her role in Peter Brook's legendary production of Titus Andronicus, he had written: "As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband's corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.").

Peter Brook, who was a close friend, pays tribute to the excellent work Tynan did as literary manager (it included arguing the case against architecture-for-architecture's-sake with Denys Lasdun) and he's also alive to the tragicomedy of Tynan's symbiotic relationship with Olivier (who was "not a nice man"). It was a cunning move on the actor's part to neutralise the country's greatest critic by bringing him inside the tent. Olivier, not being at all au fait with contemporary culture, needed Tynan as his antennae. But, as Tracy Tynan crisply puts it, her father often behaved towards his grand employer like a "rebellious adolescent child". Brook points out that "each of them thought that they could manage the other", and they were both wrong.

It's one of the many contradictions that enliven the Tynan story that this "libertarian socialist" and champion of Bertolt Brecht was a king-worshipper when it came to the appreciation of acting, and ended up as a key courtier in the constitutional monarchy of Olivier's National Theatre. The desire to be dominated by performance (and to replay the compliment through the dominance of descriptive prose) animates his critical writing. Of Frederick Valk's portrayal of Ibsen's Master Builder, he relates that "as I sat watching him I could cheerfully have measured his bulk against that of the Palace of All the Soviets, and not found them disparate by one solitary inch or stress. He seemed an Alp. And when he fell from his crazy tower, the very fall of the House of Usher seemed like crackling matchwood. Mr Valk rules our stages, but not with the negligent assurance of a constitutional monarch. Mr Valk is a dictator."

For many of his fans, Tynan is at his best as the pre-eminent exponent of the reading-Shakespeare-by-flashes-of-lightning school of writing, his prose resonating as though from the struck gong of his whole sensorium. But I prefer the quieter moments when his perceptiveness about the unshowy is beautifully brought into play. Consider this: "The key to Beatrice Lillie's success is that she ignores her audience. This is an act of daring which amounts to a revolution. Maurice Chevalier was speaking for most of his profession when he said in his autobiography: 'An artist carries on throughout his life a mysterious, uninterrupted conversation with his public.' To get into contact with the dark blur of faces out there is the Holy Grail of every personality performer except Miss Lillie, who converses not with her public but with herself. Belly laughter, for which most comedians sweat out their life's blood, only disconcerts her; it is an intrusion from another world. Her gift is to reproduce on stage the grievous idiocy with which people behave when they are on their own: humming and mumbling, grimacing at the looking glass, perhaps even singing into it... At these strange pursuits we, the customers, peep and marvel, but we are always eavesdroppers; we never 'get into the act'." For clarity of perception, unruffled tenacity and exquisitely unforced comedy, I cannot see how that passage could be improved.

Tynan was, in many regards, his own worst and formidable enemy - but again there are intimate connections between what he did right and where he went wrong. Only a man who was a drama queen could have written as well as he did, but off the page, this attribute could quickly turn into a liability. Take his campaign to stage Soldiers, Hochhuth's controversial play about Churchill's role in the morally questionable fire-bombings of German cities. According to Blakemore, Tynan distracted attention from what was centrally at issue here by focusing so heatedly on the libellous, yet subordinate matter of whether the Prime Minister was also implicated in the alleged murder of Sikorski, head of the Polish government-in-exile.

Partly, he suffered from a superfluity of gifts. In his later years, you could say that he couldn't really get down to anything because he was up to too much. "Ken was a bundle of talents loosely strung together," declares Brook. "This made him someone who was permanently and brilliantly fascinating and amusing and, at the same time, desperate. In this hypersensitive, quick, nervous person, those various qualities were constantly jangling." A solution to his financial problems, after leaving the National Theatre, would have been to return to reviewing. The offers were there. But another tension in the man was that between the indiscipline of a hectic and rather trashy social life (widening the horizons of Princess Margaret by showing her a porn movie at one of his parties) and the desire to live by some holistic system, such as is offered by the doctrines of Bertolt Brecht. One of the saddest entries in the Diaries runs: "One reason I cannot write nowadays is that I no longer have a stance, an attitude, what Eliot called in a letter to Lytton Strachey, 'the core of it - the tone'. I used to have a sign on my desk: 'Be light, stinging, insolent and melancholy'. But I am no longer any of these things, except melancholy. Can one have a stance without a cogent moral or political philosophy?"

As an example to us (in both the best and worst senses of the term), Tynan remains shockingly alive. It's a scandal, though, that while we have the Diaries and the letters and a couple of biographies and a burgeoning cottage industry of bio-dramas, his criticism is no longer in print. An omnibus edition is badly needed. Urging publishers to make good this lack is just the kind of campaign that Kenneth Tynan would have waged with characteristic flash, verve, trenchancy and (perhaps above all) a brilliant journalist's instinct for the unignorable.

'You could say that he was the Ultimate Man, in a way'

Rob Brydon

Tynan himself said that he was capable of superhuman (or was it inhuman?) objectivity. That was one of the keys to him for me, when I was researching this role. When he was a critic, for example, he would have a friendship with an actor, as he did with Orson Welles, and then absolutely savage them in print. Which shows that he was also incorruptible. His review of Welles's Othello was headlined "Citizen Coon". But he would then not understand why he could not continue with the friendship afterwards. And there's the objectivity with his sex life. He would go off to have spankings and enemas with like-minded people - but he couldn't really conceive why Kathleen [his wife and biographer] might object to that. You could say that he was the Ultimate Man, in a way, being able so expertly to compartmentalise his life and his emotions.

Some people I talked to said that he was a shit and incapable of love and I pointed to the poems that he would write for his children [Tracy, by his first marriage to Elaine Dundy; Matthew and Roxana, by Kathleen] on their birthdays. I think they are more than sweet. What a lovely legacy that must be to have poems like that from your dad.

I think that there are a number of other films we could make about him. There's the [S&M] relationship with Nicole [left out of the TV play], because I think he was right out there on the edge, sexually speaking. And then there's the whole "Englishman abroad" bit of the final years when he became part of society in California and wrote those wonderful profiles of Mel Brooks and Johnny Carson.

Do I think that he and Kathleen would have come on The Keith Barrett Show [Brydon's spoof talk show]? Yes, I think they probably would.

'He cared passionately about the theatre'

Corin Redgrave

The yardstick for a critic is not whether his or her verdicts stand the test of time. Tynan was wrong at least as often as he was right. He is drastically wrong about Pinter, dismissing his plays after The Caretaker as "middle-class". Tynan's leftism was what Lenin, in another context, called "an infantile disorder". He set out to destroy John Gielgud's reputation and he succeeded for a while, at least among the young.

But English theatre in the early 1950s was gamely pretending that the war hadn't happened, that rationing hadn't happened, that even the 20th-century hadn't happened. There were officers and other ranks, gentlemen and players, ladies and charladies with comical accents. Tynan's mission was to drag this theatre into the second half of the 20th-century. His reviews were stinging, insolent and very funny. He cared passionately about the theatre and believed its health to be a matter of national importance. The language he deployed - precise, vivid, with an impressive vocabulary - hammered out standards and criteria which went well beyond the mere assertion of an individual's taste.

My first memory of him is of a young man knocking at the door of our house in 1949, wearing bright red trousers. The second is of a letter, a reply to a furious letter of my own. Tynan had demolished a play by a fellow critic, Derek Monsey. I hadn't seen the play, Monsey's first, but I thought it horribly unjust to destroy a man's first efforts so ruthlessly. I was 16 and I attacked Tynan with every weapon I could lay my hands on. He wrote to thank me. "You haven't persuaded me I was wrong," Tynan said, "but I thank you for writing so passionately."

'In Praise of Hardcore': BBC4, Wednesday at 9pm; 'Tynan': Arts Theatre, London WC2 (020 7836 3334), to 26 March