DON Bentley waited for the last report that would complete the jigsaw of words and pictures that was the latest edition of the Chronicle. The final piece of the night’s work was the theatre review.
It was midnight, the post office clock was chiming, but there was still plenty of time for the theatre critic to file his copy. The critic always took his time and Bentley was confident the review would be concise and accurate as always. All names would be spelled correctly, of both actor and the characters they played, there would be a neat summary of plot and the reviwer’s verdict in the final paragraph would provide Bentley with a punchy headline, along the lines of “Players triumph again” or some such thing.
It was at these moments, waiting for the reviewer to come on the line, that Bentley thought of all the theatre critics he had known over the years. One immediately came to mind, John Gerard. A sprinkling of sub-editors had lingered in the mess room after their shift, and Bentley had an audience for his latest story.
There’s a golden rule of drama criticism. You never rubbish a play in the first sentence of a report because this taints the rest of the review and instills a prejudice in the mind of the reader. This was a rule that John Gerard, ace reporter of the Woking News and Mail and part-time drama critic, had no problem with breaking.
The drama critic’s pen can be a powerful weapon, and this was especially so in the hands of Gerard, still a teenager but already thinking he knew the world and its ways. Gerard’s pen was used on the unsuspecting, the amateur performers throughout south-west Surrey, but they soon reared up to fight back in surprising ways.
Every town and village in the Surrey of the 1960s had its amateur drama group, and its keen followers who packed out village halls for every performance. As is the case with small communities, this interest was not so much to do with art but for villagers to assert a role in the fabric of local life. Being out there on the stage, or even acting behind the scenes, announced to the community that you cared. It established bonds of friendship and business, and provided some welcome spin-offs. The local butcher, say, felt wanted for more than his pork sausages, and reserved his best cuts of meat for those who praised his Macbeth. These were the conventions that applied to amateur dramatics but they were the conventions that Gerard chose to flout.
Like most teenage males going on adulthood, Gerard thought the world revolved around him, and his journalism, and the world had to pay him due respect. If Gerard said the choice of a play, or a performance, was crap the world should sit up and take note. Not that he would use such a word in the Woking News and Mail, the editor would not allow it. The editor did, however, allow Gerard to say much that upset local communities. When the editor took him aside, pointing to a pile of angry letters from an audience, Gerard would merely shrug his shoulders and say that it was the role of the drama critic to point out inadequacy, to improve art for the future. The editor would agree but still get out his pencil to excise some of Gerard’s more trenchant criticisms, but not enough to totally assuage the players of Bisley, and Worplesdon, Knaphill, and Brookwood.
“You’ve been reading too much Bernard Levin,’’ the editor would say, referring to The Times’ esteemed theatre critic. Levin, according to Gerard, had once started and ended a review with, “I went to see a play last night, and the curtain was lovely.’’ Gerard had tried this on one occasion with a review of the Brookwood Players’ latest effort and the editor, Don Swatman, had put his foot down. He banned Gerard from going to plays for a whole month, and this was punishment indeed.
Gerard, from a working-class background which he resented and tried to hide, had discovered early in his News and Mail career that the role of drama critic gave him status, and more than that, he was a man if not to be feared, to be shown respect.
Gerard had taken me under his wing as a cub reporter, and when the time came to do my first review he had offered me advice. It was like nothing I had heard at the journalism course I did half a day a week at Guildford Technical College. In this we had been taught the secrets of drama reviews, along with covering traffic courts and inquests and local council meetings. We had to remember, the lecture went, that local amateur dramatic societies were just that, amateurs. Professional standards did not apply. What the reviewer looked for was effort, enthusiasm and publishing the names of all the participants, including the director and the man or woman in charge of the lighting. Names sold papers, and names were important.
Gerard thought he knew all about theatre reviewing. He had read a book on it once and laughed at my suggestion that perhaps the efforts of the performers, and the play, should be more important than the ego of the person doing the review. Gerard disagreed, pointing out his theatre critic hero, Bernard Levin, was bigger than any playwright and play. And wasn’t the theatre reviewer of the New York Times the most important person on Broadway. Didn’t the actors and actresses gather in Sardi’s restaurant, just over the road from the Times Building on Times Square, to read the reviews after an opening night. Gerard had also read that somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where on close questioning.
I was tolerant in my reviews of the suburban and village players, allowing for missed lines, forgotten lines and faux pas. When the barge woman in Toad of Toad Hall, performed by the Addlestone Players, had said to Toad, “Allow me to give you a barge in my lift’’ I hadn’t laughed along with the rest of the audience. And I hadn’t laughed aloud when Toad, the town undertaker in real life, had missed his lines at a crucial part of the play. I didn’t comment on the disjointed, slow pace of the play, the result of misdirected direction.
What did I know? I was 17, fresh out of school via a job as a messenger boy, and I was just happy to be out there with my pen and notebook, and my free ticket and program, enjoying a night out away from the television. And being paid for it, even if it was only six pounds a week with a 12 shilling bicycle allowance, which could be exchanged for a bus pass. I even took my mum along on my first night, to Charlie’s Aunt in the Bisley Village Hall, and what a time she had, even giving me some tips for my review that had to be in the next morning. My mother had liked the set.
Gerard viewed things differently. He wanted to be the centre of attention, along with the cast. Wasn’t the drama critic part of the bigger picture, part of the whole environment of the theatre? “What would the theatre be without the drama critic?” he would say, looking into his pint of bitter before setting off on the bus for another performance.
Gerard would often say with pride how the whole audience had looked for the drama critic’s entrance. If Gerard left a performance early, the tension in the village hall would get to the cast, as mutterings spread along the rows of seats that the theatre critic of the News and Mail was storming out. In truth, the play had gone on a little longer than anticipated, and Gerard was hurrying outside to catch the last bus back to Woking.
Gerard’s problems stemmed not so much from his reviews in the context of theatre and theatre reviewing but the way they played to inter-village rivalry. Everybody in amateur theatrical circles knew the reviews to be the self-centred rantings of a mere cub reporter. It’s not that they actually mattered, as the editor noted, because everyone in the community concerned would attend the play anyway, to see friends and relatives. They wouldn’t care what Gerard had to say, just as long as he spelled everyone’s name properly. Besides, Editor Swatman quite liked the letters of protest generated by Gerard’s reviews. They filled the letters’ page on quiet days and proved that people actually read his newspaper.
The problem with Gerard’s reviews was that they went beyond the environment of the theatre and, like a Surrey river breaking its banks in winter, flooded into the villages themselves. Gerard’s reviews did not only deliver a slight to the players of a particular performance, they delivered a slight to whole communities, and made these communities a laughing stock to their neighbours. This was an aspect of theatre reviewing that Gerard had not countenanced, and indeed his hero Levin would not have made allowances for, that is if he ever left Drury Lane to see a performance by the Bisley Dramatists, or one in nearby Brookwood.
The bitter rivaly between Brookwood and Bisley was a case in point. To say there was a hatred existing between the two villages would be to put it mildly. No one could put a finger on it, but it was a palpable hatred all the same. It was one of those ancient feuds whose causes were lost in the mists of time. Was it something to do with the Norman conquest and one village or the other siding with the invaders from France? Or did it go back to Roman times, with the men from Rome finding comfort in the arms of women from a certain area? No one could be sure but in more modern times, with the span of a mere hundred years instead of a thousand or two, antagonisms had taken a more tangible shape and form: that of the local railway line. With the coming of the railway age to Surrey, Brookwood had been lucky enough to find itself on the railway’s course west, gaining a mainline station in the process. Bisley had a wait for a branch line, served by a two-coach train that was dubbed the Bisley Flyer. But Bisley, in turn, had reason to boast. It was chosen for the site of a rifle range by the military, a range that achieved international status. Bisley might not have a mainline station but it was on the international map, and its residents would not let those in Brookwood forget it.
Brookwood clearly had an inferiority complex, as big as the working-class chip Gerard carried on his shoulder, and its view of itself relied heavily on the success of its amateur drama group. Gerard remained blind to Brookwood’s problems, which was a serious oversight in view of the fact that he knew the village intimately. Each reporter on the News and Mail was assigned an area for news-gathering purposes, to be visited once a week, and Brookwood was his.
One winter’s night Gerard had set off on the Aldershot and District Traction Company bus to Brookwood for a performance of one of the staples of village amateur dramatic societies, Sheridan’s The Rivals. As it happened, the performance was quiet good. Word of this reached me later, and it certainly didn’t deserve the review that Gerard had visited upon it.
At about the same time I had attended a rival production in the rival village of Bisley, of Blythe Spirit, taking my mother along again. In the nature of my reviews, it was positive, even glowing. My mother saw to that. She enjoyed it, grabbed my hand nervously as Elvera the ghost appeared on stage (actually Mrs Smith, the local hairdresser, in not a sheet as I had anticipated but a light green dress). It was my mother who noted that the material of the dress was the same fabric that was used for veils, and it gave the costume, and indeed Mrs Smith’s Elvera, an ethereal effect. It also said so in my review, even if I had to check my Oxford Mini Dictionary for the right spelling of ethereal, and what the word meant. On reading the review, the Brookwood Players were impressed and a little envious. They resolved that their production of The Rivals would be even better.
Gerard was not always a happy person. Not only did he feel the burden of being working class in class-conscious Surrey (the stockbroker belt on the fringe of London), he was also the product of a broken home, his father abandoning the family and heading back to the north of England from where they had originally come. Gerard’s mother struggled to hold down a job in a shop and to raise two teenagers and a younger boy. She didn’t have much time for Gerard. He didn’t talk at all about his home life, and I didn’t ask. There seemed a reluctance to venture home after work and he would spend the early part of the evening in the Red House or the Railway Hotel. At weekends, he often came home to stay with me, relishing the attention my mother lavished on us both. Being an only son, as I was, had its benefits, as Gerard would note. But I never told him about my mum helping me with my drama reviews, instilling a little balance, and goodwill, and praise for those brave enough to stand on a stage and run the risk of making a fool of themselves.
Gerard’s reviews certainly lacked the goodwill element, the part that praised human endeavour, and ``having a go’‘, as my mother put it. In Gerard’s reviews there was an air of cynicism, the voice of Gerard that said all was not well in the world. Gerard could laugh at himself, though, and expected other people to be able to do that themselves. It didn’t always work with the Brookwood Players, or the other keen performers who took to the boards after a day at the office, or in the shop; just for fun and to bring a little joy to other lives as well as their own.
Sheridan’s The Rivals was standard fare for the theatre groups of Surrey, a romantic comedy rich in stereotype characters easily portrayed by the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, with a few civil servants, stockbrokers, and even the local curate thrown in for good measure.
Much of the comedy is provided by the aunt of one of the central characters, Mrs Malaprop, who after the play was written in the 1700s would enter the lexicon as a person who not so much mispronounced words, but confused their meaning.
Ivy Harris, who played Mrs Malaprop in the Brookwood Players’ performance, was apt to do the same thing in real life, at the cafe she owned at one end of Brookwood’s main street. Gerard mentioned this in his review, stating that Mrs Harris did not have to learn her lines because the character of the part came naturally to her. She was, in fact, always in character. There were other criticisms - mainly to do with the set that Gerard said had as much imagination as the average Brookwood living room - but it was the reference to Mrs Harris’s real-life malapropisms that were the last straw for the cafe owner, and indeed the people of Brookwood, most of whom used her establishment and were very complimentary about her home-made pies and her acting skills.
There were angry calls to the editor, and then a petition signed by virtually the whole village, except for a rival cafe owner at the other end of Brookwood whose establishment Mrs Harris had once described as a ``gristley spoon’‘.
Worst was to come for Gerard. Local businesses withdrew their advertising from the News and Mail and Gerard himself felt an air of unease, even menace, when he ventured into the village on his rounds. The vicar wouldn’t give him a list of upcoming weddings (his wife telling Gerard on the manse doorstep that her husband was busy working on a sermon devoted to the Pharisees), he couldn’t prise out of the undertaker a list of who had died that week and the Brookwood branch of the British Legion wouldn’t give him the bingo results.
Things went from bad to worse. On his rounds, Gerald had always regarded a hearty meal of pie and mash in the Brookwood Arms, followed by two pints of Friary Meux best bitter, the highlight of his excursion into the country. After Gerard’s review appeared, he found his way into the pub barred by the busty wife of the landlord, who told Gerard in no uncertain terms how much she enjoyed the play, and how much she disagreed with his review.
“And Ivy Harris is a pillow of the local community,’’ she added, as the other patrons nodded in agreement.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
The eighth in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … his musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler.