The concept of the Actors' Dream is well known. You're playing Macbeth to Wembley Stadium, but you've forgotten your lines ("Tomorrow, tomorrow and... erm?") and your crown appears to be made of chocolate. Ditto the Exam Dream, which is said to trouble even people who sat their finals some 60 years ago. Usually, the questions are written in Sanskrit, and your pencil, alas, is fashioned from string.
But did anyone ever think of the Critics' Dream? I had it the other night. I had to write my TV review on the TV, with my finger in the static across the screen. Then A A Gill came in with a duster...
Evidently working as the TV critic of The Independent on Sunday is taking its toll. Well, so it should. Being a critic is a tough job. It is also one that is increasingly misunderstood. Take this week's spat between grizzled rocker Keith Richards and the critic who dared write off the Rolling Stones' Gothenburg show with a star rating of zero. Richards squared up to the journalist in a statement issued to Aftonbladet, the newspaper that carried the review:
"Never have I risen to the bait of a bad review. But this time... I have to stand up for our incredible Gothenburg audience and for our fans all over Sweden... to say that you owe them, and us, an apology." The statement came from the Stones' promoter in Sweden, but it seems to carry some of the authentic tang of Richards' voice. Hell hath no fury like a recording artist scorned.
For the second time in as many years, Mr Richards is out of his tree: "You have a duty to wield the power of the press with honesty and integrity," he admonished. "There were 56,000 people in Ullevi stadium who bought a ticket to our concert and experienced a completely different show than the one you reviewed. How dare you cheapen the experience for them and for the hundreds of thousands of other people across Sweden who weren't at Ullevi and have only your review to go on?" The philippic concluded: "Write the truth. It was a good show."
In some senses I am glad that Keith Richards, whose signature style might be described as world-weary, has been so moved by something written by a critic. Usually stars claim not to read the critics, which is a bit like airily claiming not to open your post. But Richards' arguments against the journalist are all over the place, showing a startling misinterpretation of a critic's job.
First, he has obviously taken it far too personally. Bad reviews are not "bait" used to lure a personal response, and they do not need to be followed up with apologies. To proffer a negative critical opinion is not to insult someone. One of Richards' phrases is particularly telling: "How dare you..." It's as if the man had spat in his salad rather than carrying out the routine job for which he is paid. In a healthier critical culture, Richards wouldn't use the language of offence and politesse.
Second, he is angry with the critic for going against the grain. If 56,000 people seemed to enjoy the Stones' concert, why didn't he? But it's exactly when everyone is gripped by mass hysteria, in a stadium full of fans, that we need the detached critic most. If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs, my father says, you may have misunderstood the situation. Or you're a critic.
I went to cover the Concert for Diana for this paper and, entering Wembley stadium, was immediately choked by the immense primeval power of a crowd. Standing in the middle of half a million people, independent thought is hard work. It's like swimming against a rip tide. If they start cheering a piece of singing candy floss, you actually have to try really hard not to join in. Which is why it's a strong and useful critic that can disagree with the mob. The political analogies are not far off, but I'm sure I don't have to go there, do I? Not on a Saturday.
The Rolling Stones are sacred cows. Cash cows too. Richards, in thinking he is above criticism, makes of himself a ridiculous spectacle. Would he rather be greeted with patronising nostalgia? There is a school of thought that believes that the best time to kick a band is when they are up, but that makes it sound as if critics are simply trophy-hunting, taking pleasure in scalping the greats.
This is as wrong as drooling over them. The only way for it is to try faithfully to assess the art and not the performer. But my favourite kind of criticism is that which delivers its ground glass in the treacle of praise, where the noose is made of velvet. The kind of criticism, in short, that a performer can read and find faintly mystifying. (Why did he/she praise the elegance of my costume for three paragraphs?)
And when criticism is truly below the belt, the performer can always turn it to his or her advantage. Take Diana Rigg, who regularly quotes her worst review, written of her naked appearance in Héloïse and Abélard: "Miss Rigg is built like a mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses." Diana Rigg can laugh, and so perhaps in time will Keith Richards.