Obituary: Jack Tinker

Not only was Jack Tinker unique in his ability to understand that plays only really exist in performance at a time when many of his colleagues view them as scripts, but he was also alone in national tabloids in still writing overnight, which meant 1,000 words in about half an hour after the fall of the curtain.

This used to be widespread practice, but in Tinker's time, he became not only the leading, but also just about the last of these specialists. He dealt in instant reaction rather than measured reflection, but as a result, anybody who in 50 years time wants to know exactly what it was like to be at a West End opening night will find Tinker's reviews infinitely more useful than those of his more intellectual colleagues.

Jack Tinker was appointed the Drama Critic of the Daily Mail in 1972 (after two years as a feature writer on the Daily Sketch) and remained there for some 24 years, following a strong tradition of critics such as Bernard Levin and Herbert Kretzmer.

He had made his name on the Brighton Argus, as the greatest out-of-London critic who gave producers and actors alike a foretaste of what they could expect from Fleet Street, but (unlike them) time enough to get the show right on tour before facing the rest of us.

He wrote originally both gossip and television columns, but the theatre was where he always belonged: tiny, starry and fearless, he would himself take to the stage in amazing cabaret and lecture performances, singing "Alice Blue Gown" to an audience of professionals who came to mock and stayed to cheer his blatant courage.

Unlike many of his contemporaries he never hid behind his typewriter or his byline; he stood up on innumerable radio and television programmes to defend his opinions, challenge those actors and producers who thought he had got it wrong, and in the process unashamedly made himself as much of a star turn as many of those he reviewed.

Even actors and dramatists whom he regularly attacked would credit him with a passion for the theatre theatrical which was almost unique among his colleagues.

Jack Tinker saw himself as in and of the theatre, a critic from inside the boundary who could be as savage as any of the outsiders but who always knew precisely what he was being savage about.

His love and loyalty to plays and players will always be remembered. His overnight talent was to make the review as starry as the event he was reviewing, and in a world of increasingly academic and professorial critics he was, like Kenneth Tynan, one of the very last headline men, a journalist who always knew that his job was to sell his newspaper as well as his opinion.

Many of us were sometimes driven wild by the more eccentric of his loves and hates; none of us ever doubted his talent, his devotion to the art and business of theatre, or his unique gift for getting shows talked about, for better or worse, the morning after they had opened.

Like Puck or Ariel he seemed utterly ageless. He was a man of remarkable contradictions - gay, but passionately devoted to his daughters (one of whom died with equally sudden horror) and his grandchildren.

He was one of the great stars of our profession, the president of our Critics Circle and the reviewer to whom I and more of his colleagues than he perhaps realised turned first every morning. At least we then had someone to disagree with, and for as long as there are first nights or arts programmes he will be desperately missed.

A West End first night is a curious and manufactured occasion, writes David Lister. An audience of invited guests, friends of the cast and critics who tend to ignore and be ignored by the rest of the party.

Not so Jack Tinker. His diminutive presence was acknowledged by everyone from the front of house ushers to the assorted producers, directors and yes fans in the audience who would all come up and greet him.

Flamboyant in manner and dress and often sporting a ponytail, Jack was an easily recognisable theatrical character. His wealth of anecdotes and engaging charm not only found him as at home at a restaurant table of actors and producers in a West End restaurant but also doing a regular turn entertaining passengers on the QE2 when he took a break from reviewing.

No one critic has really stood out above the pack in recent decades; but it is fair to say that Tinker was probably the most influential and most popular. His overnight reviews were given the prominence of the top spot on an early news page by his paper, and he managed to combine wit and genuine enthusiasm under the pressure of overnight deadlines.

But Tinker's bonhomie and camp humour disguised a genuine tragedy that coloured his life. Six years ago his youngest daughter Charlotte drowned after having an epileptic fit in the bath. In a moving article he later wrote how he came to terms with this.

His close friend the late Patric Walker, the astrologer, took him to Greece for peace and seclusion and told him: "Don't look on it as a life interrupted. Try to think of it as a life completed and then you can take it with you for the rest of your life."

Tinker's vast number of friends both in the theatre and in journalism will attempt to think of his life in the same way, and will remember a rarity: a highly professional and effective critic who engendered much affection in the people about whom he wrote.

No one could tell a joke against himself better than Jack Tinker, writes Michael De-la-Noy. While still married to Mavis, he was once carted off to hospital. "Who is she?" an anxious nurse demanded of Mavis as she scrutinised the diminutive patient. "Do you mind," said Mavis. "That's my husband!"

Following Jack's divorce, he and I shared a commodious flat in Hove. Jack, who by this time had come out as gay, enjoyed recounting the more bizarre events of his murky divorce. "A particularly revolting form of cruelty," the divorce court judge was alleged to have said, scribbling Jack's telephone number down under the desk. One never quite knew how much of his anecdotes were true, how much embroidered. But as with all born raconteurs, Jack's ability to embellish a good yarn was one of his many sparling gifts. He had only to enter a room and, although as a rule the smallest person present, he would somehow succeed in rising head and shoulders above his audience.

It was obvious from his early days on the Brighton Evening Argus that he was cut out for stardom. He and I met on my first day on the now defunct Brighton & Hove Herald, at a Rotary Club lunch, of all incongruous places. I became so enthralled by his conversation that I forgot to take a single note of the speeches.

For Jack was not only funny, he was extremely intelligent, and beneath the theatrical masque there was a shrewd assesser of the human scene. My great regret about Jack was that he was so ephemeral. He had it in him to write a really funny book. Alas, he put all his humour into his life, but at least it was the privilege of his friends to share it.

Jack Samuel Tinker, drama critic: born 15 February 1938; married (marriage dissolved; two daughters and one daughter deceased); died Brighton 28 October 1996.

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