CONNOISSEURS of drama criticism often quibble about the portrait of its typical practitioner. Should he wear jeans and sneakers or reach for his snuffbox at the interval? Ought he to carry a silver cane and sport a monocle or get drunk at the interval and sleep through the second half? Should he make jottings on his cuff or shine his torch on a notebook? Or just sit back and absorb the performance with an occasional George Sanders murmur of sophisticated disdain?
Kenneth Hurren, who had been keeping 'one auspicious and one dropping eye' on the West End theatre for over half a century, had no need to model himself on anyone; but more than most of his colleagues he did look the part with his poise, courtesy and guarded attitude to speech at the interval. He was a shy man and liked to keep his critical distance, but with his bow tie and (a thing never recorded in the annals of the Critics Circle since the days of Charles Morgan) goatee beard, he cut as distinguished a figure as anyone on first nights in his days on the Spectator and, for the last decade, the Mail on Sunday.
Not that he sought to catch the public eye at theatre openings, but as one of the more reactionary reviewers of his post-war generation - he called himself a reviewer not a critic - he stood apart with his courage, his contempt for fashion, his graceful manners and his distrust of all publicity.
Although he acquired a loyal following on the Mail on Sunday he felt restricted by space and the need to sum up shows with a phrase, wittily if possible. His most exhilarating years were on the Spectator in the 1970s. Referring obliquely to himself in a book on the contemporary British stage, Theatre Inside Out (1977), he said: 'Its reviewer from 1970 to 1976 was notoriously wayward and plainly far too frivolous for the company he kept.' When the Spectator changed hands again, he returned to edit, with characteristic gusto, the London weekly entertainment guide What's On, which he had joined in the 1930s after leaving Westminster School.
Hurren liked nothing so much as shaping other people's writings, suggesting ideas for articles, pictures, page layouts and putting, as the phrase goes, a paper to bed. It could keep him out of his own two nights a week. Once his family was tucked up on a Sunday night, the distant clatter of his typewriter remained faintly audible until the early hours as he compiled three columns, one on the week's theatre, one on horse racing, and another on something called Night Life.
Soon after dawn he would head for the printers in Buckinghamshire. This was about as far as the innately metropolitan Hurren ever ventured into the provinces except for Stratford-on-Avon. He spent the rest of Monday and most of Monday night subbing contributors' copy and seeing to other editorial technicalities before returning to the capital to face the rest of the new week's round of first nights, horse racing and cabarets.
As a critic he was a reactionary and unashamed of it. He hated seeing actresses like Glenda Jackson or directors like Joan Littlewood elevated into goddesses. He doubted after Osborne's and Pinter's early flurries the lasting value of the new British drama hailed with such excitement in the 1950s and 1960s. He was not easily excited as a playgoer but he was as a journalist; and, though he acknowledged the necessity for theatrical subsidy, he said: 'The theatre has always seemed more likely to die for want of an audience than for want of money'.Reuse content