Rotary Club address

a talk delivered on November 20 2008 

Are you here – people will often ask – in your official capacity ?

Or are you – they imply – here for pleasure ?

Happily, almost invariably, the honest answer, despite the curtain speeches, the lack of legroom and the cardboard coffee, is both.

I first wrote those words twenty years ago, when I resigned as Arts Editor of the Essex Chronicle.

Now my successor, the redoutable Mary Redman, has gone, leaving the county town with only one professional critic.

In an age of blogs and spin, does that matter, I hear you ask. Critic and broadcaster Norman Lebrecht addressed this very point last month, arguing that the role of arts critic is being eroded and, unless we do something about it, discussion of the arts will soon be monopolised by promoters and by the unaccountable whimsy of bloggers.

It is a thankless task, criticism. Artists hate being told where they went wrong and editors don't like to offend billionaire advertisers [ or readers, I might add ]. It's a thankless job, but unless we cherish it, we stand to lose one of our oldest freedoms. 

Lots has changed. Groups are more ambitious, more likely to use technology, although it's never as performance-enhancing as they would wish. And the National Anthem is rarely played at the end of shows these days, most organizations taking the pragmatic view that they will play the Queen if and when the monarch actually graces their comedy-thriller with her presence.

Technology has affected the hacks, too. The trusty Remington, blacks [carbon-paper duplicates of submitted copy] have gone the way of lime-light and spirit gum. No more will we leave the panto on Christmas Eve, creep past the merry compositors in the print room into the deserted Westway newsroom, borrow a typewriter to bash our a few desperate words of festive approval. Now our copy is emailed in, and by the magic of cut and paste ends up in the Weekly News, which you can now read, in its glorious advertising entirety, on-line. A completely paper-free process.

 Are Rotarians lovers of the arts ? Are you opera-goers, fans of the Prodigy ? Prommers ? Or, better yet, are you thespians, Chelmsford Singers, Springers or jazz saxophonists ?

Hands up !

If you've been a member of a paying audience at an arts event in the past month ?

If you've performed in front of a paying audience in the past year ?

I must apologize for my unkempt whiskers. By pure coincidence, this is not my only performance this week. Last night we opened in Map of the Heart, up the leafy lanes of Little Baddow, Hurry, hurry ...

I think it's important, if you presume to criticise other performers, to put yourself in their jazz shoes from time to time. The other thing is to constantly remind yourself of the bench marks. Not just the National and the RSC, but the best of the provinces, Chichester, say, or, luckily for us, Colchester. And the most impressive amateurs – Latchingdon, or the legendary Maddermarket in Norwich.

So what are they really like, the groups I cover. No backstage gossip – Ayckbourn wrote a brilliant play [Chorus of Disapproval] about a bit part actor in an amateur operatic society who reached the star parts by cunning and the casting couch – but in my considerable experience almost any other group – bell-ringers, say, or bee-keepers – would afford more opportunities for hanky-panky than the would be luvvies of the arts scene. Artistically, then, they range from the social groups for whom the actual performance is almost a by-product, and where the bar makes more than the box office, to the companies who consistently take pride in their production standards. And between the two, the majority, who think they are much better than they are ...

I do get letters. And surprisingly, they are not complaining that I've been absurdly generous to the inept amateurs who shouldn't really expect people to leave Strictly Come Dancing and pay good money to sit on a plastic chair in a draughty church hall. No, these letters invariably ask whether I realise how much work has gone into the show, how much money has been raised for charity, how young the performers are, how much everyone else in the audience loved every minute. I have a standard reply. I am paid to share my opinion, not to reflect the mood of the audience. My 200 words need to give a flavour of my evening out, and be an interesting read whether or not you were a member of the cast, or the audience, or neither.

Of course your friends and relations are not the people to ask if you really want to know how good you were. As Alan Bennett noted, Going Round is one of the perils of playgoing ...

But very rarely are those two hours on the Press Bench a complete waste of time. Before I take questions, what have been the high points that made these 3000 evenings worthwhile ?

Moments, often, rather than complete shows. The discovery of the plague in the Roses of Eyam [Chelmsford Theatre Workshop], or the collapse of Dracula's study walls to reveal a gaping graveyard beyond [Latchingdon].

And what shows would I want to recall on my Desert Island ? Young Gen's Les Mis from a year or two back, or a generation earlier, their first Follow the Star, just round the corner from here in the Primmer Hall, and perhaps best of all the promenade performance of Lark Rise at the Palace, Westcliff.

You had to be there, of course, which is one of the best, and the worst, aspects of live performance. All that work, and it's all over in a couple of hours. Gone, never to be recaptured. Not even in the columns of the Chelmsford Weekly News ...