Image: Richard Fullerton

“The excitement of what’s around the corner keeps me going”: an interview with Michael Billington

A far cry from the ghoulish caricature with which his profession is eternally lumbered, Michael Billington represents an invaluable record of twentieth-century theatrical progression. Seated comfortably amid an immeasurable assemblage of programmes, books and copies of The Guardian – the paper to which he has devoted the last 47 years – Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic appears to have lost none of the boyish enthusiasm and flawless memory for which he remains so admired. Regarded by many as the old sage of the English theatre, an hour in Billington’s company endows one with a greater knowledge of theatrical history than three years of university education may ever hope to provide.

Born in 1939 and a teenager by the mid-fifties, the young Billington was immediately bewitched by the on and offstage glamour of what he refers to as the ‘Heroic Acting’ period: a time in which the theatre was dominated by stars of the bravura of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft. “I think glamour’s a good word, because actors then had precisely that quality. Olivier particularly had this mysterious glamour, because he seemed to change his appearance from role to role.” He is reminded of Olivier’s famous 1955 season at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford, in which the actor played alongside his then wife, Vivien Leigh, in Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus. “I saw him first as Malvolio, and then astonishingly a different human being seemed to emerge as Macbeth, and then another person came onstage as Titus. So there was a mystery about, you know, who was this man, who could change his appearance so magically?”

Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic appears to have lost none of the boyish enthusiasm and flawless memory for which he remains so admired

While Olivier’s skills of disguise contributed to his enigma, Billington maintains that it was the mystery of an actor’s private life that made the industry appear so alluring. “They were seen to be on more of a pedestal than actors are today. Today we hunger to know everything. We expect actors to crop up on Graham Norton, we expect them to tweet. We expect them to be available the whole time. Those actors in that generation were not available.” He chuckles as he recalls an anecdote from collaborating with Peggy Ashcroft on her 1988 biography. “She was very apprehensive about doing the book, and I remember the publisher saying to Peggy, ‘Oh, just imagine you’re having the public to tea, and you’re talking to Michael as if he were the public.’ Peggy froze with horror and said, ‘I would never have the public to tea!’”

As someone who has witnessed the evolution of acting over the last 80 or so years, I ask Billington whether there’s anything he mourns about the ‘Heroic Acting’ of the old tradition. ‘I think we’ve sacrificed one or two things, one of which is the aesthetic pleasure of great voices. I think verse is spoken, in many cases, extremely well, with as great a comprehension – but in gaining comprehension and intelligibility, we have sometimes sacrificed the aesthetic beauty of sound. The musicality, if you like. I mean, Gielgud had it, but I think John Gielgud had that musicality without sacrificing sense. He allowed you to understand every line, but he also gave you the pleasure. If you listen to any of his recordings, you hear the architecture of the great speech, and how he will build phrase upon phrase upon phrase. So I’m not knocking today’s actors, who I think are formidable. But at the same time, there was a pleasure that we’ve lost sight of: the nobility of bearing, and the beauty of voice.”

There was a pleasure that we’ve lost sight of: the nobility of bearing, and the beauty of voice

Billington began his career as a director of theatre, directing a number of successful student productions while studying at Oxford. “I can remember, at Oxford, taking myself on a long walk, thinking, ‘What do I really want to do?’ I was suddenly enamoured with directing, and at Oxford we had the chance to work with proper directors. I was directed by Ken Loach!” His brief tenure as a director was not without controversy, earning national headlines for one particularly contentious production. “I did a play called The Making of Moo by Nigel Dennis, which now seems quite inoffensive, but then it was considered outrageous because it was blasphemous. It was about a group of colonialists who invent a new religion, and my tutor – a sincere and devout Catholic – tried to stop me doing the play by refusing me ‘acting leave’ which you then had to seek. I protested, and it led to his resignation as Junior Dean of the college. I had then the arrogance of youth, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to be stopped from doing a play because of my tutor.’ Looking back, I regret all the anger it caused.”

After graduating from Oxford in 1961, Billington worked as a director for the Lincoln Theatre Company for two years, before ultimately joining The Times in 1965 as a critic of theatre, film and television. While he abandoned directing in favour of criticism, he has since returned to the role periodically – notably at the Barbican Conservatory in 1987, and the Battersea Arts Centre in 1997. I ask him whether he harbours any regrets regarding his decision. “I can remember a moment when I suddenly realised that when I sat down at a desk behind what was then a typewriter, I felt comfortable or confident. When I went into a rehearsal room, I was always tense, nervous and apprehensive, because I think I lacked social skills. I also was convinced that I lacked the skills to choreograph a production – I always found getting people on and off and all those things quite tricky. So for all those reasons, I decided it was much better that I try to be a critic. But you’re quite right, I have periodically lapsed – at other people’s invitation!”

I think it’s important that critics have more than one string to their bow, or more than one art form in which they’re interested

While he’s now regarded as the nation’s foremost theatre critic, Billington spent much of his early career reviewing cinema. “I reviewed films from 1965 through to sometime in the nineteen-eighties, and they were great years in the cinema. They were years in which European cinema was producing – it seemed – endless masterpieces. Those were the days of Bergman, Fellini, Visconti and the great directors.” I ask him whether he considers versatility to be an essential requirement as a critic. “I think it’s important that critics have more than one string to their bow, or more than one art form in which they’re interested. One of the joys of my life was doing a radio programme for the BBC called Critic’s Forum, which is now gone. Each week on Critic’s Forum, a group of critics sat around a table, and we’d discuss a play, a film, a book, an art exhibition and a piece of TV or radio. You’d do it for five weeks at a time, and by the end of those five weeks, you felt utterly on top of current events in the world of the arts.”

While the theatre remains his preoccupation, Billington still endeavours to keep his other interests alive, visiting galleries when he can and discovering new authors in his spare time. “I think the really good critics are able to refer to music, paintings and literature – not in a show-off way, but able to make comparisons between one art form and another. I think the danger is if we become monomaniac critics, with only one obsessive subject about which we know everything and nothing about anything else.”

John Barton had this ability to catch the opal-like quality of Shakespearean comedy and its constantly shifting light

Discussing his popular 2014 series, Best Shakespeare Productions, we quickly drift onto the subject of recently deceased RSC co-founder John Barton, whose productions Billington so frequently labelled as definitive. I ask him how he might best summarize Barton’s contribution to the British theatre scene. “His [1973] Richard II is a good example of how he changed a perspective on a play. It was always seen pre-Barton as a play about a rather effete king, confronted by a pragmatic, burly Bolingbroke. And then along comes John Barton and says, ‘Well, hold on, these two men are two sides of the same coin. There is a strange parallel between them, because the moment Bolingbroke becomes king, he has the same insecurity as Richard experienced and so on.’ And that was genius, I thought. Ever since, you now expect any Richard II to take that concept on board – to look at the parallels, not the dissimilarities, between those two characters.”

Barton’s genius also extended to Shakespearean comedy. His productions of Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing starring Judi Dench and Donald Sinden left a particularly strong impression on Billington. “I can’t imagine I’ll ever see better productions of those plays in particular. He just had this ability to catch the opal-like quality of Shakespearean comedy and its constantly shifting light, and I’ve never seen any other director get that nearly as well. The image I always have of John Barton productions is of falling leaves – it always seemed to be autumn in John Barton’s world of Shakespearean comedy. The seasons were always shifting, and summer was giving way to autumn, and that’s exactly the mood of those plays. So if I go on about him, I’m unapologetic. I think he deserves – I mean, his death was noted, but it deserved more recognition even than it’s had.”

The actors seem to me much more philosophical and stoical, whereas directors seem to be a very temperamental breed

In spite of Billington’s general popularity, he has nevertheless frequently experienced the inevitable backlash that the title invites. I ask him whether he’s suffered any particularly unpleasant encounters with insulted artists. “There was a famous one, which got blown out of all proportion. It’s entered a sort of mythical realm now: when I was hit by David Storey, the dramatist, having called one of his plays at the Royal Court a ‘stinker’. Storey laid in wait for the critics when we were next in the building, and he literally ambushed us then started to remonstrate with us. When he got to me – I didn’t think it was particularly serious – he started to give me a cuff on the head. It never died actually, that story. Even at his death, people were still saying, ‘Oh yes, he was the man who attacked a critic and felled him to the ground.’”

Though he succeeded in enraging Storey, Billington maintains that playwrights are by no means the problem. “I find the most thin-skinned people in the theatre are directors. The director feels that he’s got to represent his or her company, and they’ve got to justify what they’ve done – but I’m just surprised, because the director is the person who stages the play and then moves on, whereas the actors are the people who’re stuck with it. The actors seem to me much more philosophical and stoical, whereas directors seem to be a very temperamental breed, generally speaking.”

Violent encounters with slighted dramatists may make for the best headlines, but it is his own rash judgements that haunt Billington

Violent encounters with slighted dramatists may make for the best headlines, but it is his own rash judgements that haunt Billington to this day. “I reviewed Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at its first performance in 1978, and I said it was a trivial play, really. I’ve since written a book about Harold Pinter, I’ve seen Betrayal many times, and I’ve retracted that judgement. Antonia Fraser, Harold’s wife, said to me not too long ago, ‘Michael, I wish you’d stop going on about how you got it wrong. You don’t have to begin every review of Betrayal with yet another apology for your mistake the first time round!’ And I thought, yes, you can get a bit boring with your constant apologies for the errors you have made. All critics have a list of productions or plays that they’ve misjudged or misunderstood, and you just have to do the best you can and make up for it.”

Last year, Billington attacked the new artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, for decimating the National’s classical repertory. Given the upcoming productions of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, I ask him whether he feels at all appeased. “No, I don’t feel appeased. I’ve talked to Rufus Norris since that article, and his argument was, ‘Michael, we’re trying to refocus the National and make it representative of the nation; therefore, it’s got to represent greater diversity and greater gender-equality,’ and he said that ‘If you want that, then you can’t simply do the old classic repertory,’ particularly if you want fifty per cent women writers, which he does at least. My counter-argument is: ‘Well, yes, that’s one of the National’s functions – the other function is to keep the repertory alive.’ Rufus has not quite jettisoned but almost entirely cut the classic repertory except for Shakespeare, and I’m not appeased by one Macbeth or one Antony and Cleopatra. That’s not the classic repertory.”

I’m not appeased by one Macbeth or one Antony and Cleopatra. That’s not the classic repertory

Billington worries that the National’s current attitude may serve to damage the wider industry. “There’s a huge bank of plays – British plays, continental plays, American plays – that the National could be looking at, and my argument was that if the National opts out of this, then so will everyone else. It’s getting increasingly hard for regional theatres now to do a broad repertory of plays for financial reasons. The RSC obviously does what it can, but I just feel that a whole generation is losing sight of the broad, classic range.”

I suggest to Billington that one of the pleasures of the job must surely be the discovery and promotion of the exciting and new. “I agree with your point, yes. One of the joys and challenges of the job is responding to new work – particularly writers, you know? Seeing new plays that have no context, pedigree or background and just thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve stumbled across something quite remarkable here.’” I ask him whether he can think of any discoveries which he might be tempted to attribute to himself. “I think sometimes you can spot a performer and think, ‘Gosh, there’s someone who’s got something remarkable’ – even when they’re not King Lear. I remember years ago I went to see a musical at Stratford – I think it was Kiss Me Kate – and there was a young, bright, vibrant figure in the background who was called Janie Dee. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Gosh, this woman has star quality’, and Janie Dee is now a very established straight actor and musical performer as well.”

One of the joys and challenges of the job is responding to new work – particularly writers

“I’ve just seen someone in the last year who I’m absolutely convinced has got the same star quality. Her name is Erin Doherty, and I just picked her out as my most promising newcomer because I think that in a year or two’s time, everyone will be talking about this woman. She’s got some extraordinary quality, and it’s to do with the eyes – she has the most amazingly flickering eyes, which radiate curiosity and liveliness. So watch that name! But that’s part of the pleasure of the job. I’m not claiming any prophetic skills; I’m just saying that it’s looking out for new talent.”

This November, Michael Billington will turn 79. Three years from now, he will celebrate his fiftieth anniversary as The Guardian’s chief theatre critic. I ask him whether the thought of retirement looms over him at all. “Well, retirement is a living issue, and it’s one that I tend to introduce periodically into the conversation at The Guardian. I talk to my theatre editor, and I’ll say, ‘I’m 78, I’m getting on – I’m happy to go on, are you happy for me to go on?’ And I wait breathlessly for the response! So far it’s been, ‘Yes, yes, of course – we want you to carry on as long as you wish or can.’ So my own philosophy is as long as I’ve got my health, and as long as I still have my marbles, and as long as I have my curiosity, and as long as I can still write and it’s not becoming strenuous to do so, then I will happily continue. My experience is whenever I do contemplate retirement, I look at the schedule and I think, ‘My goodness me, there’s a new artistic director just taken over! Oh, the Bridge has just opened! There’s a new play coming up by David Hare, or Caryl Churchill, or whoever it may be. I can’t miss that!’ So it’s always the excitement of what’s around the corner that keeps one going, actually.”

That’s part of the charm of the job for me – it’s gregarious solitude

He reminds me that the job offers an agreeable balance between solitude and socialising. “That’s part of the charm of it for me – it’s gregarious solitude. You are working on your own, but at the same time, the job involves you meeting and talking to other people. The day is a mix of the social and non-social. It suits certain temperaments, and it suits my temperament perfectly. If you are someone who likes the pleasures of solitude, but at the same time likes to go out in the evening and meet other people – and part of the pleasure of theatre is social, you know? We go to the theatre to see plays, but we also go to the theatre either with other people or to meet other people, so there’s always that aspect of the job which I cherish. For the moment, anyway, I have no intention of retiring.”

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