ikT THE MOMENT I am spending quite a lot of my time in the company of theatre folk, which makes a refreshing change from that of journalists and other media types, who tend to be characterised by a world-weary cynicism uncommon among those who tread the boards for their crust. The thespians, however, are much more argumentative.
Last week, while sitting with a friend in a pub which draws much of its trade from nearby theatres, I was engaged in conversation by a girl called Maggie, who turned out to be an actress with a number of TV credits to her name, and was given something of a hard time for being a critic. Her theme was the arrogant ignorance of people like me, who presume to judge television drama without the least idea of how the product comes into being. It was, she felt, a job that should be left to members of her own profession, who were qualified for it by virtue of first-hand experience. The fact that I'd never heard of her, or seen anything she'd been in, didn't help, for these people will always melt under the warmth of flattery.
I could not, in all conscience, defend TV critics as a breed; too many of us use other people's work as a vehicle for our own wit, destroying for the infantile fun of it. But neither was I going to be forced on to the back foot, and launch into a self-justifying monologue as though I were some kind of war criminal. Instead I suggested that reviews written by actors might be a trifle cosy, and less likely to inform the general reader than the response of someone more detached but with a general critical literacy. I wasn't sufficiently riled to add that there seems to be no correlation at all between acting ability and intelligence, and that half our greatest performers would be hard pressed to write a coherent sentence It's a pretty safe bet that Maggie was feeling aggrieved at something she'd read, possibly that day, concerning a performance of her own, and leaped at the chance to vent her spleen on the enemy. Nonetheless, she had a point. It is an ancient conundrum, distilled, for example, by Kafka, that those best qualified to judge by their knowledge are disqualified by their subjectivity. The criticism of the practitioner is a separate genre, informative in its way, but itself most usefully absorbed through the filter of criticism.
The case of television is further complicated by the absence of any common orthodoxy which might raise the views of an actor above the purely personal; for although there exist some universal verities which obtain in drama presented in any medium, stage, film, TV and radio have all developed disciplines unique to themselves, and the youngest form is still, Potter et al notwithstanding, struggling to establish an identity. Television does not even have a consistent critical vocabulary of its own; the private technical language of its community is designed, like that of modern literary critics, more to exclude than to illuminate, which is a sure sign of insecurity.
All this makes the job of the armchair pundit both easier and harder. Easier, because one can merely turn inferential knowledge into artistic judgement without fear of any academic condemnation; harder because views formed within a merely nascent framework are much more difficult to defend. Our purpose is to entertain and inform, preferably in equal measure, and, yes, the temptation to do the former at the expense of the latter is ever present and occasionally overwhelming. Satire is justifiable; ridicule is not. But one thing is for sure; being a screen actor oneself would make the task of fairly reviewing a screen performance just about impossible, obscuring the actuality with an inevitable prejudice. So I make no apologies, Maggie. And I'll be watching out for you in future.