Milton Shulman

Jovial film and theatre critic with a curmudgeonly reputation
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The Independent Online

When any journalist dies in great old age, he is liable by then to be more of a name than an immediate presence to younger colleagues, and a man who had spent more than half a century in old Fleet Street was in any case in danger of becoming a "character", better known for what he was than for what he did.

Milton Shulman, writer, journalist and critic: born Toronto, Ontario 30 August 1913; film critic, Evening Standard 1948-58, theatre critic 1953-91, television critic 1964-73; film critic, Sunday Express 1948-58, book critic 1957-58; producer, Granada Television 1958-62; Assistant Controller of Programmes, Rediffusion 1962-64; film critic, Vogue 1975-87; married secondly 1956 Drusilla Beyfus (one son, two daughters); died London 21 May 2004.

When any journalist dies in great old age, he is liable by then to be more of a name than an immediate presence to younger colleagues, and a man who had spent more than half a century in old Fleet Street was in any case in danger of becoming a "character", better known for what he was than for what he did. Milton Shulman, who has died at the age of 90, suffered to some degree from both these fates, but for an older generation of newspaper people, and for many readers and radio listeners, his name is remembered with much warmth.

In the course of a varied life, he had been lawyer and soldier before entering what he always believed would be his trade of journalism. He was born in 1913 in Toronto, the son of Samuel and Ethel Shulman, poor Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. His father died in the 1919 flu epidemic and Milton was educated at school in the city before studying law at the University of Toronto. He was called to the Canadian Bar and practised from 1937 to 1940, but said later that he had few prospects there because of the strong anti-Semitism still prevalent both in English-speaking Canada and Quebec. He already hankered after show business as well as journalism, and, during that brief career at the Bar, "Whispering Milt" supported himself as a crooner.

The Second World War was the making of him. Shulman joined up in 1940 and may well have been the first Jew ever commissioned in the Canadian Army. Even then his background counted against him in the Armoured Corps, but he moved into Intelligence, where he excelled. By the time of the Normandy landings he was one of the leading authorities in the Canadian Army on the Wehrmacht's order of battle.

He also made friends. One day in Normandy in the summer of 1944, a young British officer called Lieutenant Worsthorne wandered into his tent. Nearly 50 years on it was amusing and touching to see the two veterans, Sir Peregrine by then celebrated as columnist and editor, and Milton as critic, reminiscing over a drink in Fleet Street about that first meeting. Shulman may have been lucky to have survived another occasion when, to test security, he strolled into his camp dressed as a German officer. Then again, it's hard to believe that he looked very convincing in the part.

After VE day, now a major and mentioned in despatches, he interrogated numerous senior officers, from Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt down. For all the horrors of Nazism, he was impressed by the skill and organisation of the German army, and yet at the same time he wanted to know how, as he put it, the combined discipline and ignorance of the German military machine served Hitler well and Germany badly. This was the subject of Defeat in the West, published in 1947, his first book and his best.

It made his name, and effected his entry into journalism when he came to the attention of his fellow Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, whose stable he joined in 1948. Beaverbrook asked him whether he knew any film actresses and Shulman said not. This answer satisfied "the lord", who thought his new recruit wouldn't be corrupted by the amorous attentions of stars or starlets (Shulman indeed always had an eye for a pretty girl), and shortly thereafter he became film critic of the London Evening Standard.

In that role he acquired a reputation as a curmudgeon more likely to damn than to praise, as he did again when he turned to theatre criticism. In fact he loved plenty of films as well as plays, but it was true that he was repelled by much of the tawdry product of Hollywood in the 1950s, and said so. So sharp were his strictures that the film companies at one point withdrew their advertising, and Shulman gave up the cinema.

He was theatre critic of the Standard for much longer, from 1953 to 1991. Here again his strongest tastes were often negative, and unfashionable. He thought that Look Back in Anger (1956) was "a self-pitying snivel", and added that "nothing is so comforting to the young as the opportunity to feel sorry for themselves" - a judgement which may now seem sounder than Kenneth Tynan's rhapsodies about that play - while he found Harold Pinter a trifle short on humour.

After dismissing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968) as "an Old Testament version of Up Pompeii", he continued to take a dim view of Andrew Lloyd Webber's success with that and later shows did not soften Shulman. When there was a bomb scare at the New London Theatre at the first night of Cats in 1981, he stayed his seat with the words "This theatre's never had a hit yet".

On the other hand, Shulman appreciated fine acting, of which he was often a shrewd judge. He did not join in the chorus of praise for Laurence Olivier's luridly overripe Othello in 1964, but he saw Orson Welles playing Ahab as

a black-cloaked wrestler . . . an aggressive organ . . . an artillery barrage caught on a rising and falling wind. He is virtue, evil and ham in about equal quantities.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, when Fleet Street was still a village, Shulman was often found in the village inn, most likely in the company of John Raymond, Henry Fairlie or Philip Hope-Wallace, with whom conversation was witty and free. Shulman fitted well into this group, a Jewish Mr Pickwick, jovial and benign in appearance.

It was there in El Vino's around 30 years ago that Shulman memorably said to Alan Watkins, "There are two things I'm better at 60 than I was at 30. One is tennis and one is fucking." Watkins replied that, as to the latter, he recognised that acquired skills, responsiveness, and so forth might make a difference, but that he simply refused to believe Milton played tennis better than 30 years before. True or not, he was certainly a good self-taught player, who took to the court at the Hurlingham Club every week until his eighties.

In that hard-drinking Fleet Street set, Shulman was comparatively temperate, and he never smoked a cigarette in his life, but he had other weaknesses. One year the Evening Standard Christmas party was adorned by a panto in which the chorines ran through the paper's staff, including "Milton Shulman, he's no fool, man, / Though his horses come in last". That was near the knuckle. Shulman was an incorrigible but remarkbly unsuccessful punter, both in cash (his daily 50p each-way yankee rarely seemed to return much for its £11 investment) and on credit.

At one point his inability to pay the bookies led to a complaint to Tattersall's Committee, and, in the traditional and sonorously chilling words, he was warned off Newmarket Heath and places where racing is run. As it happened, Shulman never went to the races and had no interest in horses except as a means for losing money, but he refused to take the insult lying down. With some courage as well as skill, he fought a legal action against the edict, which was finally overturned.

In 1958-62 he worked as a producer for Granada Television, and briefly thereafter for Rediffusion. But television left him increasingly unhappy. He was neither a puritan nor an anti-modernist (he collected Abstract Expressionists). But, out of an innate decency and gentleness, he detested gratuitous sex and violence on stage or screen. He made that clear in his 1973 book The Least Worst Television in the World, as well as in later denunciations of, for example, Mark Ravenhill's work as "a psychotic babble written by someone with an anal fetish".

Apart from a novel and some children's books, Shulman also published his memoirs: Marilyn, Hitler and Me (1998) was so called because he had once spent a week covering Marilyn Monroe. And he produced an anthology of bons mots, Voltaire, Goldberg & Others (1999: Goldberg featured in the Jewish jokes with which he liked to round off the Radio 4 programme Stop the Week, which he regularly adorned from the beginning of its long run, 1974-92).

After a short-lived wartime marriage in Canada, Shulman married Drusilla Beyfus in 1956, with Michael Foot as his best man. "Dru" Beyfus was herself a considerable Fleet Street figure, with whom he would sometimes appear on television chat shows. They had a son, Jason, a designer and editor, and two daughters, both of whom have made names for themselves, Alexandra as Editor of Vogue and Nicola (the Marchioness of Normanby) as a writer and critic.

Milton Shulman hated the country as much as he loved London, from Fleet Street, to the Garrick Club, to Belgravia, where he had the good fortune early to acquire a rent-controlled flat in Eaton Square. In all of those urban oases, he inspired sometimes ironical amusement, but more often affection and regard for his deeper qualities of humour and kindness.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

What Milton Shulman was good at was recognising which jokes could be visited and revisited, like the Pyramids or the Tower of London, writes Robert Robinson.

Every time he did the one about the Jewish lady telling her husband that just once, for her birthday, she would like him to buy her something retail, or the surgeon telling the man in the hospital bed that the bad news was that he was going to have his feet amputated, but the good news was that the man in the next bed wanted to buy his shoes - each time it was as though he was taking us on a pilgrimage. And, though it might have sounded as if the rest of us were gently deriding his repetitions, we weren't, we were supplying (after our fashion) a sort of liturgical response.

Of course, the man's voice was unmistakable, and his characteristic stammering overture to anything he was about say still crackles in my ears. On Stop the Rot (which is what we called it, fearful that if we used its real name we might be taking ourselves too seriously) Milton was the one who came at what he wanted to say directly and head-on: the rest of us sidled a bit, but Milton told it as he saw it, and it was a right-of-centre view taken direct from Eaton Square - he wasn't a name-dropper, it was just that all his pals were names.

I think it's true to say Beaverbrook was his idol: when he was given the job of film critic, Beaverbrook told him (in that exhortatory monotone that made his voice so easy to caricature), "Beware the false gods: you will be offered bribes and dazzled with women - cast them aside!" But, as Milton said, the closest he came to any of these baubles was the time on Stop the Week when we'd spoken of the gentle art of frying chips and the next week received five pounds of Belgian dripping from a manufacturer. But when Beaverbrook died Milton said, I am sure without irony, "Who am I going to write for? Until now, I always knew who I was writing for - that one little old reader."

Milton liked Jewish jokes, and he would lead us to his favourites, as to a shrine - in particular the story of the Jewish tourist in China who was surprised to discover a synagogue, with everything done so fittingly by the Chinese rabbi that the tourist felt he must congratulate him. This he did, but the Chinese rabbi just stared at him and said, "You don't look Jewish to me."

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