Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

In praise of Tinker

Sir: Milton Shulman deserves congratulations for his sensitivity in allowing a full seven weeks to elapse after Jack Tinker's death before denigrating the reputation of the Daily Mail's theatre critic (Arts, 7 December). I doubt if his characterisation of Tinker as frivolous, empty-headed and attention-seeking, with a reputation founded upon the brightness of his personality will be recognised by people who knew the man or his reviews. The portrayal is a travesty, in the sense of a grotesque and distorted impression of the original.

Tinker's appealing personality was familiar to relatively few. His notices - published daily for a quarter of the century in the Daily Mail - were the single source of his popularity. They made theatre accessible and interesting to a mass readership. They were notable for astuteness, intelligence, clarity and - particularly - wit. And Tinker never lost his capacity to be surprised or delighted by the newest theatrical wave.

Mr Shulman bases his claim that Tinker was more a `frustrated actor than committed critic' on the assertion that he wore flamboyant or lurid clothes on first nights to draw attention to himself, and relished the social occasion as much as the play. What piffle. Only luck-laden starlets achieve brief reputations by virtue of the sensational clothes they wear in public. Tinker sometimes dressed in high, bright fashion, no more than that. Just because he often talked on radio and television, or liked performing on stage to help Aids charities does not mean he secretly hankered to become another Ian McKellen or a born-again Maggie Smith.

Mr Shulman must have eyes wilfully closed to the main event if he believes Tinker lacked commitment to the theatre. He was a most dedicated reviewer, annually attending dozens of fringe plays which it was not strictly necessary for him to see. His attention was unflagging and he never dozed in the stalls.

Shulman's belittling critique of Tinker is apparently spurred by eagerness to make use of this recently dead reviewer's career as fresh evidence that no critic writing instant reviews for the next day's papers will be taken seriously by posterity. `The task of making sense of obscure plays like Waiting for Godot or The Birthday Party in the few minutes available resulted in judgments that were non-committal or bizarre,' he claims. Is, then, my former colleague Milton Shulman, who ceased to be theatre critic of the Evening Standard five years ago after writing reviews on the night for almost all his 38year career as a theatre reviewer, implicitly repudiating his own notices of these plays by Beckett and Pinter? Is he saying that his reviews of much modern drama were wrong because they were written at speed and against the clock? I think we should be told.

Shulman wishes to change the future, with all critics attending a play's last preview, and all reviews published the day after the first night. Some hope. Theatre critics (even entirely retired ones like Mr Shulman) may propose but editors dispose. Nowadays most broadsheet newspapers only review major musicals and a few significant first nights the next morning, publishing other theatres' notices a further 24 hours later. It's sometimes several days, or occasionally even a week, before a theatre review is published in the Guardian or the Independent. So it's surely doubtful whether the Daily Mail or the Evening Standard, now alone in habitually publishing first-night reviews the next day, would surrender this advantage over the broadsheets. After all, some newspapers still believe there's commercial value in getting all the news (even theatre reviews) first. Jack Tinker was dramatic proof of what one rare theatre critic achieved by being perceptive, enthusiastic, funny and sharp on the night. It's a valuable legacy and it will take more than a little supercilious back-biting from Mr Shulman to damage it.

Nicholas de Jongh Evening Standard, 2 Derry Street, London W8

Welcome from Plymouth

Sir: In Sheridan Morley's as always interesting review of the theatrical year (Arts, 14/21 December) he inadvertently allowed himself the easy indulgence of doubting the warmth of the welcome that will be afforded to the Royal Shakespeare Company by the theatre companies of the South-West when the RSC establishes its first residency here in Plymouth next autumn. …

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