Rude Awakening: Attacks from Critics, Missed Press Nights, Harrowing Shows
Portillo, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
My first year as a theatre critic began inauspiciously. I was invited to the Critics' Circle Drama Awards and asked to say a few words. I mouthed some harmless platitudes about how theatre had been, since the days of Queen Elizabeth I, a bastion of free expression in Britain. The very experienced critic Nicholas de Jongh came to the podium next and said crossly that I had been talking rubbish because the Lord Chamberlain had retained the power to close theatres until the 1960s. Imagine my surprise at this onslaught! I had arrived fresh-faced from the quiet waters of national politics and had not realised how ill equipped I would be for the combative world of theatre criticism. It was consoling for a sweet innocent such as me that most of the audience gasped at de Jongh's attack in the manner of a Bateman cartoon: "The man at the vicar's tea party who peed in the jardiniere".
On my appointment as New Statesman theatre critic, the R Cubed website hailed me as "a completely unqualified bumpkin", which is difficult to deny. Sheridan Morley, who used to grace this column, wondered why politicians wanted to do jobs for which they had no training, when other professions had no corresponding wish to become politicians. So how come we have a journalist occupying 11 Downing Street and putting up our taxes?
I was flattered and amused to be asked to write for the New Statesman. It seems such a good joke to have a Thatcherite on the payroll. For the reader, my flippant Tory ramblings are meant to offer some light contrast to all that conspiracy theory stuff served up in the front half of the paper by earnest lefties such as John Kampfner.
I have discovered one benefit for the magazine from my arrival. A cabal of Conservative ladies in my Kensington and Chelsea constituency has taken to reading the New Statesman, though they would not be seen dead buying it. Instead, they peruse it in the Kensington library. I am a little worried about how this may affect my standing in the local Conservative Association. The editor sends me to review some quite adult shows, and I have had to write frankly about disagreeable things such as incest and repeat some very rude words that I hear on stage. Deselection from my seat might be a real possibility, if I were not stepping down.
Sadly, since the awards debacle, I have seen very little of my fellow critics because I rarely manage to get to press nights (because I still moonlight as a member of parliament). …