This might looks like another novelty lockdown piece, but it’s actually something I’ve been planning for over a year. It’s the eight anniversary of my theatre blog when I wrote this. On the third and sixth anniversaries I wrote about what I’ve learned, but for this milestone I thought I’d do something different. It’s sort of about what I learned, but only what I learned the hard way.
As any regulars will know, I made up my mind quite long ago that I don’t want to be an unconditional cheerleader for theatre, and definitely not a cheerleader for the people in charge of theatre. I want to be noisy and frequently off-message, supporting decisions when they’re right, speaking out when I think it’s a mistake. Nor do I go along with consensus just to fit in with what everyone else think of plays. I plan to keep it that way, because there have been times I’ve stuck my neck out and later been proven right, the most obvious case being Pantogate – I was asking questions long before their treatment of staff and actors came out in the open. But I don’t always make the right call. There several thing I’ve said that, looking back, I now thing I got wrong. In general, I’m embarrassed I wrote this now.
So, let’s get straight to business. The worst mistake I ever made is …
wait for it …
Working for the Passport Office. Badum-tish. Thank you, I’m here all week.
But apart from that, what did I get wrong in this blog? I got wrong things like this:
My ten biggest all-time mistakes
[Fine print: This is supposed to be a fun article. As such, this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’ve left out a few incidents surrounding old arguments that I don’t want to restart. Please bear this in mind before asking why I haven’t included this.]
For the last two years, I’ve been begging people not to take the rage-bait from the Daily Mail columnist everybody loves to hate. But whilst I stand by this, I regret not wising up to this sooner. In 2017, when he made the infamous comment about Salome in the nip being “jolly fit”, a debate erupted over whether it’s acceptable to comment about an actor’s attractive. I naively gave my contribution that it might be appropriate if the story requires the character to be attractive and it’s necessary to mention this in the story, but Quentin Letts’s contribution was definitely not appropriate.
But why I was even in a discussion about this? Of course Quentin Letts was being inappropriate, that was the whole point. I twigged what he was up to later when similar waves of outrage followed other (increasingly predictable) comments. By the time he made the infamous “Was he cast because he was black?” comment I knew perfectly well he was doing it to get attention, hence my reluctance to write anything at all. Now I’m wise to this, it’s just embarrassing I ever attempted to debate him seriously. Ah well, better late than never.
When you spot someone in the early days who you say could go on to great things, and that someone does indeed achieve this, it’s very tempting to hark back to your prediction. And that is indeed what I do. So it’s only fair to turn this round look at someone who I didn’t rate, who went on to prove me wrong.
You know Live Theatre has had a major hit when it returns for a second main stage three-week run. Paddy Campbell’s Wet House was one of those. I broadly stand by my verdict: he did a fine job writing about what he knows (especially the three alcoholics in the hostel), but the story never really picked up any momentum. But there was one thing I really got wrong – I said there’s only so much you can do writing about what you know. That strength, it turned out, reaped far greater rewards than I thought possible.
After Campbell’s second play at Live also had a second run, Day of the Flymo, I thought I’d give the a chance, and that’s when I started to see how well his knowledge of social care fed into the story, this time child protection services in a battle to protect 13-year-old Liam from himself. But it was Leaving that was superb. This was verbatim theatre, which you’d think was a different area to writing about what you know, but it worked like a dream, with Paddy Campbell getting numerous young people leaving the care system to open up about what life is like for them. So Paddy, please consider this a belated apology for not recognising your talents the first time round.
I’ve frequently be thanked for picking up subtle themes in plays, so let’s look at one where I missed the point by a mile. The Memory of Water is probably the review I’m most embarrassed about writing. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve written the review without seeing the second half. I’d reviewed the play seeing it as a cringe-fest, which, to be fair, a lot of the first half is, but I really did not keep up in the second half.
I ended directing the play myself the following year. I won’t bore you the details of how this came about, but directing a play requires actually understanding what you’re directing, at it was only at that point I realised how little emphasis I’d given to the second half – the shambolic lives of Mary’s two sisters is really just a disguise for the far deeper and darker problems of Mary’s life. I think I did a good job of my own play in the end, but, boy, I was late to the party.
Still, I didn’t miss the point of the play as badly as its own film adaptation, Before You Go. God, that was a let-down.
One of my more contentious articles – and I deliberately made this contentious, was a call for Live Theatre to be more open with its programming. Bearing in mind a bad independent production in the main theatre (or even the studio space) could reflect badly on the in-house productions, however unfair that might me. So, I proposed – having already seen this work successfully as a performance space – they use the Undercroft on a more open basis. It was hypothetical; since then, Northern Stage have adopted something similar with its own Stage 3, which seems to be pleasing everyone, and I still think if would benefit both Live Theatre and performers seeking their first break to do what I suggested.
However, what I got wrong was the idea that this could make a noticeable difference for groups seeking their first break in Newcastle. I now know it would be at most a drop in the ocean. It was the arrival of Alphabetti Theatre that exposed the extent of the disparity between performers and spaces to perform – even though their venue was dedicated to redressing this, the venue was fully programmed with people still left over needing somewhere to go.
I genuinely now think what we need is another Alphabetti Theatre – not so much Alphabetti Theatre now, but something on the scale of their previous venues at the Dog and Parrot or New Bridge Street. I’ve been reluctant to suggest this before, because it was a real possibility that it could have caused both of them to go bust, but I’m confident that proper Alphabetti is now secure enough to manage a competitor (Bobik’s in Jesmond is a possibility). And in the longer term – I’m increasingly thinking Manchester is the way to go. So Live Theatre – you’re still welcome to take up the undercroft idea if you like, but we now have bigger fish to fry.
Most items on this list are merely things where I changed by mind – I can forgive myself for that. Where I reproach myself more is journalistic ethics. I make a big thing of it – indeed, this is one of few arts publications that publishes a complaints procedure – but there have still been a couple of cases where, in retrospect, I overstepped the line.
One such case was James Dacre, and yes, he is the son of Paul Dacre, until recently editor of the Daily Mail. To explain my thinking at the time, I never takes this blog too seriously – honestly, I could never survive without mixing in dry analysis with humour and/or snark. However, I am careful about making jokes at the expense of named people. In general, I work by the rule that public figures or people otherwise in positions of power are fair game for childish jibes, but I lay off personal attacks on anyone else, especially in reviews about them. So I did find it ironic that when James Dacre was directing The Thrill of Love (which is brilliant, by the way), I couldn’t resist making a dig at Dacre snr, whose paper I could easily imagine calling for her head.
I went too far, it was wrong to say that, I apologise. There might be a place for jokes about notorious public theatres that major artistic directors are related to, but articles about their work is definitely not the appropriate place to do it. And no – it isn’t acceptable just because the target of the joke is universally disliked in the arts. I frequently complain about reviewers who base their verdict on political affiliations of the artists; on this occasion, I failed to set an example.
This time, I’m back-pedalling away from a mainstream position. I will say straight off that I was planning to include this long before the National Theatre decided to stream plays for free – and fair play to them for doing so. But I saw One Man Two Guvnors for the second time, and I’m not warming to it. And yet, when I reviewed it the first time round, I said I liked it.
I was new to the reviewing game back then, and my mistake was, I suspect, the same one made by many beginners – I went along with what everyone else was saying. I stand by the basics of what I said – it’s far more faithful to this genre of 18th-centrury writing to do nob gags and fart jokes than a prim production done in Received Pronunciation, and transplanting The Servant of Two Masters to 1960s gangland Brighton was a good concept. But I am now also acquainted with Lee Hall’s version, which I found vastly superior. I have a policy of not retracting good reviews just because I change my mind later, so I won’t do a re-review, but I must get off my chest my thoughts on their use of plants.
For me, the whole “Christine Patterson” section came across as a celebrity comedian bullying someone who didn’t want to be part of this. And, okay, she was a plant, but I can’t believe most the audience knew that, and baying with laughter for the punchline with the fire extinguisher was really uncomfortable. But if the entire audience was in on the joke – what then was the point of it? I really do not understand what’s so funny about actors pretending to spontaneously react to whatever the audience supposedly throws at them – certainly not when there are other comedians who do this for real (not to mention the actors of the real commedia dell’arte). These moments of “scripted spontaneity”, I believe, really undervalues the actors and comedian who can do this for real.
As I said, fair play to the National for sharing plays for free. But for this play in which the entire theatre world is united in adulation: I don’t get it. Sorry.
This was another time I felt I overstepped the line on journalistic ethics. It’s also a lesson on making judgements.
For a bit of context, at the time I heard Abi Titmuss was going to be in a new John Godber play, this was at the height of attention-seeking from former glamour models. It has been only two years since Jordan / Katie Price had tried to launch a magazine about herself. There’s all sorts of celebrities who think they’re talented at everything just because they’re always in Heat Magazine, but glamour models are amongst the worst offenders. So when I heard another glamour model was launching an acting career I thought “Oh, here we go. Another one on the Strictly does Dancing on Ice Factor circuit.” And I got a bit snarky.
However, I got it wrong. Whilst Muddy Cows isn’t Godber’s best play, she did a good job in it. She was good member of an ensemble, didn’t try to make the it all about herself, and – most notably – played a very different role to what she’s famous for. Far from a glamorous blonde bombshell, she played a level-headed woman who’s a calming influence on the women’s rugby team. I didn’t keep track of how she fared after that, but if she was serious about reinventing herself as an actor, she was doing the right thing. That was a valuable lesson for me: never make judgements of individuals based on the actions of a group. And it’s a principle I’ve been careful to stick to ever since.
Oh boy, this is embarrassing. Even with all my caveats of how this was a rapidly-changing situation and my predictions wouldn’t apply if we went into full-scale lockdown like Italy, it’s just painful re-reading this now.
If you didn’t read that article, the summary is that when news of Coronavirus ramped up in early March, I thought it would be good to look at what might happen, seeing as no-one else appeared to be talking about it. I speculated the following might happen:
- The Vault Festival would probably have time to finish before any restrictions came in. Wrong.
- Brighton Fringe could probably go ahead as it’s lots of little events rather than one big event. Wrong.
- Edinburgh Fringe’s registrations might be hampered by uncertainty, but was probably far enough away to be safe. Wrong.
Buxton Fringe is still set for July at the time of writing, but knowing my luck that will change too.
Even when I was downbeat, I got that wrong as well. I said that it was not possible to postpone fringes. Wrong again. Brighton Fringe thinks otherwise. (I was really thinking of Edinburgh when I said that – had I thought a bit more I’d have said the smaller fringes were more versatile.) Not sure what long-term lesson there is to learn here, except to not make any predictions involving pandemics.
I apologise for digging up and old argument for what looks like further point-scoring, but it’s something where I really have changed my mind. When the argument blew up over Penguin apparently trying to censor an independent artist’s work (before jumping on the bandwagon the moment they realised they could make money), I gave my thoughts, originally trying to suggest making up; but after the cheerleaders for Penguin Random House got nasty, I took sides, and it heavily against Penguin. Almost everything I’ve written I completely stand by: it would have been in everyone’s interests to have made up their difference; Penguin was nonetheless 100% in the wrong on the matter; and it was important not to blame the writers of the “official” Ladybird parodies for the publisher’s antics. However, there’s one thing I take back: I said the two rival publications were both great. I got that wrong. Miriam Elia deserves her place on the best-seller’s list; Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley’s books are overrated.
To explain what happened, I got mixed up with who was writing what. The books weren’t the only officially sanctioned product on sale; there was also cards of Craig Deeley’s parody book covers, which were brilliant. I hadn’t realised this was a different author to the Ladybird parody books, and so I mistakenly carried over a good impression to Joel and Jason. It’s fair to say I had some good impressions about the books themselves; it’s just that the joke wore thin very quickly. Ultimately the whole premise was a caption competition based on pictures from Ladybird books – and eight books was far too many to sustain the same joke. I liked The Ladybird Guide to Dating, but by the time I reached The Ladybird Guide to the Hispter I got bored and didn’t finish it.
Even so, I would probably have let this go if Penguin hadn’t flogged this horse to death and beyond. Once they released How it Works: the Mum on Mother’s Day and How it Works: the Dad on Father’s Day I realised where they were going. I believe the lastest one is The Ladybird Guide to Donald Trump, with a picture of an orange. The most over-used Trump joke of all time. Now, Miriam Elia has also cashed in on her success and written more books, but she’s at least has the sense refrain from over-writing her own premise to death. Credit where it’s due, I can’t argue with the result, and the Ladybird parodies is a hugely lucrative franchise. But so is Police Academy, and no-one praises that.
1: I attributed reviews to the wrong plays
Okay – it was the Edinburgh Fringe, I was getting into things with my usual 5-6 shows per day, I was tired. And I corrected this the moment I was made aware of it, But even so, that was a spectacular cock-up.
So, during Edinburgh Fringe 2018 (don’t look for the wrong bit, I corrected it), I saw the Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show. I’m a long-standing fan – for those who don’t know this, these is a group who do ten-minute plays; five in the space of an hour and a rotating set over three days. So you can come on three different days and see a total of fifteen plays. I take care to time my visits so I catch all three sets. So why oh why did I not keep track of what day it was?
I saw menu one – in my opinion one of Bite-Size’s strongest sets, and I set about doing a review praising the writing. Enthusiastically digging out the programme to check the names of the plays and authors, I read the wrong column and wrote reviews about completely different plays to what I’d seen. More embarrassingly, I recognised some of the names of the authors and made some clever observations about the direction their writing was moving in with the latest plays they hadn’t written. I was informed of this mistake quite quickly and I corrected it – luckily, I don’t think many people read the wrong article. But for a while, there was a spectacular mutation on my blog.
This is far from my only factual error; normally they are quietly corrected and there’s no fuss – and in this case, we’d always been on good terms and that was the end of the matter. So why does this one get pole position when all my other factual mistakes didn’t make the list? Because I was lazy. I knew I wasn’t 100% confident I’d correctly remembered what day I’d seen these plays – and, on reflection, the titles I’d matched up didn’t make sense either. It would have a trivially easy task to check, but I didn’t bother. That was inexcusable, and doubly so seeing as I’ve criticised other journalists for not doing basic fact-checking. And, okay, this wasn’t particularly contentious thing to be wrong about (I am a lot more careful over fact-checking when I’m being critical of anyone), but the fact remains that I didn’t check something important when I wasn’t sure I was correct. Black mark for myself there – that was far too sloppy.
This articles is meant to be a bit of fun rather than a session of self-flagellation. However, there is a kind-of serious point to this. If there’s one lesson I want to be taken home here: it’s okay to be wrong sometimes.
Yes, it’s better if you can avoid making mistakes as much as possible, but the one thing that’s worse than sometimes getting it wrong is behaving like you never get things wrong. Some reviewers, when broaching the subject of negative reviews, seem to hold the attitude that their verdict is above criticism. Sure, it’s never okay to respond to bad review with abuse, but is there any reviewer who hasn’t written a review and changed their mind later?
However, the worst offenders are the people who respond to criticism by doubling down with more of the same, and it the time of writing it’s The Scotsman who are headed that way with their fringe coverage. When Kate Copstick launched attacks on comedians who wouldn’t give press tickets for previews, it was pretty clear most people thought she was in the wrong; to resurrect that row a year later was just embarrassing. That was just one of several fronts the Scotsman has come under fire for; responding with what appeared to be a proxy attack on their competitors is really poor form.
It’s fine to make mistakes. It’s fine to change your mind. It’s fine to realise you’ve overstepped the line. You don’t have to announce your error to the world when you’ve screwed up, but at least know you got it wrong. That way, you can get it right next time.