Fair copy and foul practice

There have been two theatre non-stories given a lot of prominence in the media over the past few days.

The first is that Bill Kenwright is a cheapskate producer, blocking negotiations with Equity to increase the West End minimum wage from £500 to £550 a week. The second is that producers — Kenwright among them — might end up in prison if they distort critics’ reviews in their advertising.

I don’t see why actors should be paid above the minimum rate if their show isn’t heading for a profit. And none of them has to work for Kenwright if they don’t want to. And as for protecting the subtle meanings and jewelled prose of the theatre critics — do me a favour! We’re not talking, these days, of Bernard Shaw or Dorothy Parker, let alone Philip Hope-Wallace or Kenneth Tynan.

Producers only care about critics insofar as they provide advertising copy. So it’s up to the critics not to give them any. To start moaning that producers sometimes skim the odd epithet or fulsome sentence from an unfavourable notice is as foolish as to complain that critics have failed to represent the show fairly in the first place.

The development is part of the strict application of yet more bonkers European Union legislation in the field of consumer protection. It’s doubtful that even the nannyish EU law-makers can make life as frustrating for theatre owners as they already have done for farmers and fishmongers. And Richard Pulford, President of SOLT, doubts that any current practice contravenes these new directives anyway.

But the idea that discussion about what matters in theatre boils down to a feeling that producers are hoodwinking potential customers by distorting the deathless prose of the critics is patently absurd. The critics themselves — or rather, their editors — have conspired in this situation by reducing critical intercourse to a system of star ratings.

One example given is an Observer recommendation for Sinatra at the Palladium with the phrase “energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry” taken from the fuller sentence, “For all the energy…etc…the audience has been shortchanged.”

I can see the point of the objection to this, but where do you draw the line? The only alternative to quotation is to print the full review, which is obviously impracticable. The other alternative is not to quote from reviews at all, which would then allow producers not to invite critics at all.

The EU johnnies should be told to get lost and the critics’ circle should continue to complain to managements when they feel aggrieved and write tighter copy so they can’t be misquoted without producers feeling ashamed.

As for Bill Kenwright, his greatest crime in his advertising copy was to persistently misspell the name of Alastair Macaulay on his display advertising. Poor old Ally Pally — now writing beautiful Ally ballet reviews for the New York Times — was variously featured on the hoardings as “Alistair McAuly,” “Alaster MacAuly” and, for all I know, “Alice Tarmac Ally.”  

Back to the first issue. Are actors entitled to be better paid than they are merely because they are in the West End? Since Margaret Thatcher more or less torpedoed the principles of the closed shop we are all, even journalists, subject to the brute reality of the market place where unions have a voice in matters of pay and employment but no power.

Just because a show is in the West End these days does not mean it’s a money-spinner. More often, it’s not, and it’s difficult to reconcile this fact in the actor’s mind with an understandable sense that as player on the West End stage, the Premier League of the theatre pyramid, he is automatically entitled to commensurate remuneration.

More than most Bill Kenwright knows about the comparative economics of theatre and football. As chairman of Everton he can afford to pay his players £40,000 a week each, and in some cases more; this is because of the exploison of money in the game due to the sale of television rights.

But even a club like Everton is running on a huge long-term defecit…this remains an unfathonable mystery. But I don’t think even Bill distorts football writers’ match reports to promote his case. It’s a whole different ball game.

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