John Barber

Benign but adroit drama critic
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The Independent Online

John Herbert Barber, drama critic, literary agent and scriptwriter; born King's Norton, Warwickshire 4 April 1912; married 1939 Roshan Mirza (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1968 Kathleen Annis (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 2 December 2005.

When I once asked John Barber whom he considered to be the most important English dramatists of his time, he at once replied, "Coward, Rattigan, Stoppard - in that order." But this preference for instantly accessible drama did not rob him of the ability not merely to admire such writers as Pinter and Beckett but also, as a critic, to penetrate to the heart of their ambiguities.

Barber worked as a drama critic for eight years (1950-58) at the Daily Express and for a further 18 years (1968-86) at The Daily Telegraph, but he never became, as he himself would modestly be the first to acknowledge, one of the superstars of the profession. Equally adroit, however, at dealing with the new wave and the well-made play, he was certainly the best of the all-rounders.

As he described it, Barber's initiation as a drama critic at the Daily Express was hazardous and daunting. From time to time the tyrannical and capricious proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, would summon him either to praise or find fault with one of his reviews, or to insist that this or that friend should receive favourable coverage. With his debonair charm Barber was usually able to deflect the more outrageous of his complaints and demands. At The Daily Telegraph life was much easier. Shy, courteous and considerate, the proprietor there, Lord Hartwell, never caused any problem. Between Barber's two periods as a drama critic, he worked less contentedly for six years as an agent with Curtis Brown and for four years as a script editor with the BBC.

When I became drama critic at The Sunday Telegraph, Barber, a benign but stern prefect to my gauche and flustered new boy, treated me with extreme kindness. His best piece of advice was about how to construct a review. Most readers of theatrical reviews, he explained, were in too much of a hurry to read them from start to finish. The first paragraph of a review should therefore summarise what sort of play it was. The last paragraph should indicate why the play and the performances made a visit either worthwhile or a waste of money. To do this was always his practice. I made it mine.

His second best piece of advice was to start from the premiss that most plays were neither outstandingly good nor contemptibly bad, but merely at their best enjoyable and at their worst mediocre. Never given to Harold Hobson's extravagant praise or to Kenneth Tynan's vitriolic denunciation, he was a far fairer critic than either of them. But fairness, though gratefully appreciated by playwrights and actors, is not what wins a reviewer nationwide fame.

A sociable man, Barber had many actor friends, of whom his favourite was John Gielgud, about whose tactlessness he could draw on a fund of entertaining stories. One such was about the occasion when, on entering the great actor's dressing room, Gielgud greeted him: "John dear! Grey hair and black eyebrows! What an amusing idea!" Having recently married a second wife, Kathy, much younger than himself, Barber had dyed his eyebrows in the hope that that would mitigate the difference in their ages.

This happy second marriage, in his mid-fifties, and the son and daughter that followed, must have contributed greatly to Barber's physical and mental youthfulness into old age. During his long retirement he gardened, read the latest novels and assiduously attended classes to brush up his Ancient Greek and Latin.

From time to time he would visit me in London from Oxford, always travelling by bus. We would have lunch and then, after he had indignantly rejected any idea of a taxi, we would make our way by public transport to the National Film Theatre, to see a silent film starring some such idol of his youth as Garbo, Chaplin, Keaton or Swanson. He was always alert, interesting, interested and happy, even when suffering the pains and discomforts of what he called "this ghastly decrepitude".