Man About Town

Egotist ergo sum

Just stage Cyrano with a great actor breaking wind in a corner, and we’ll all be happy

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


Egotist ergo sum

At the beginning of the month, I burst my chains of domestic bondage, Samson-like, and escaped hotfoot to Soho to sip white wine with ruffians to celebrate Dan Jones’s excellent new book, Powers and Thrones. Jones is one of these prolific coves who churns out a hefty volume a year, but this year he has excelled himself, with a supernatural novella out just in time for Halloween, too. I admire his rate of industry but do occasionally fear for his sanity. Many a good man has gone to the bad thinking medievally. Look at Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction for proof.

Thankfully there was no gimp-related basement action amidst the jolly and relieved crowd, all of whom seemed delighted to be mingling with their fellow writers. Critic columnists including David Starkey and Lisa Hilton were joined by a plethora of thrusting young scribblers, and, incongruously, the comedian Tim Key. In my corner, there was much lively debate as to what a plural of historians could be described as. An untruth? A revisionism? Finally, the argument was settled by some splendid fellow, deep into his seventh glass. “Surely it’s ‘a masturbation of egotists’?” AJP Taylor would be spinning in his grave.

Novel questions

Another exercise in mass onanism comes in the form of Sara Cox’s Between The Covers book show, returning to BBC2 imminently. On the one hand, we must be grateful that there is any primetime television programme devoted to the pleasures of reading, and the books that are included in the new series, including Meg Mason’s excellent Sorrow and Bliss, are all thoroughly respectable. But they are all fiction. If one writes biography, or history, or social geography, or any of the other kinds of genre that makes up the rich pageant of contemporary non-fiction, you can whistle for the exposure that such a programme would bring. 

None of this should be blamed on Cox herself. Instead, it is likely that some 28-year-old producer somewhere has decided that the average viewer is “uninterested” in non-fiction and that it is easier to feature novels, instead. 

While this raises some interesting social questions, most non-fiction titles that sell in decent quantities have the cross-promotional advantage of their authors being a familiar face from television. Should you not have the relevant channel controller’s WhatsApp details, the chances of your book receiving the promotion that will lead to its selling in decent numbers are declining all the time.

• • •

It is always sad to learn of the death of a great actor, but what is even sadder is for such a demise to be pre-announced. Yet this is what has happened with Sir Antony Sher, who is terminally ill. His husband Greg Doran, the artistic director of the RSC, has taken a leave of absence to care for him, but he has suggested that he does not expect Sher’s illness to last much beyond the New Year.

Leaving aside the personal loss that Sher’s death will be, it will deprive the English stage of one of its most chameleonic stars. I saw him three times, as Cyrano de Bergerac, Iago and Falstaff, and you would not have believed that it was the same man. As Cyrano, he was every inch the dashing romantic, cursed by deformity but blessed with wit. As Iago, he was a bluff NCO, committing wickedness with coldly impersonal professionalism. At one hilarious point, he removed Desdemona’s handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow before hastily realising his mistake. And he was a cunning, ingratiating Falstaff, who charmed the audience into laughter, even as they sensed his moral vacancy.

 Like the other great stage actors Alan Howard and John Wood, his work on film, although often enjoyable, lacked the subtlety and range of his theatrical achievements. But I still remember his extraordinary performance from Hugo Blick’s 2011 The Shadow Line, in which he played a dual role as a mild-mannered Irish antique dealer and a ruthless London crime boss, who both happened to be the same man. And Sher was excellent value offstage, too. When asked what his most embarrassing moment had been, he replied, “Accidentally farting in an audience member’s face when playing Cyrano in Blackpool.” You can’t imagine that from Daniel Day-Lewis.

Stubborn piles

Like many freelance book reviewers, I am sent endless proof copies of books by optimistic publicists in the hope that I will be able to review them somewhere. Unfortunately, time, opportunity and inclination usually make this impossible, so I leave unwanted books outside my front door with a “Please Take” sign. It is a fascinating insight into the literary tastes of my corner of Oxford to see what disappears quickly — novels by well-known authors — and what takes longer to be snapped up, namely more “demanding” works of fiction and non-fiction alike. But the majority find a home within a few hours. 

I will spare the blushes of the unfortunate author whose (admittedly dense) book remained unwanted after a couple of days. Thankfully, the local Oxfam was grateful for the donation. But I saw the book staring balefully out of its shelves at me the other day. I mouthed an apology. 

• • •

I have no desire to keep on fighting Rufus Norris, the director of the National Theatre. I want him to succeed, and for the National to stage plays that I would go and see. But when I saw the latest raft of programming, I groaned, once again. Norris seems averse to staging any plays written before 1980. While his successor Nicholas Hytner had his greatest hits with three new plays — One Man, Two Guvnors, The History Boys and War Horse — they had the blessed advantage of being glorious entertainment that people wanted to go and see. 

Looking at Norris’s new slate — including his Christmas musical Hex, with lyrics by him and music by his wife Tanya Ronder — I fear that the chances of someone like me (or many Critic readers) heading to the National remain as remote as the “mischievous, right-wing play” that Hytner once wanted to stage ever appearing in this corner of SE1. Just stage Cyrano, Rufus, with a great actor breaking wind in a corner, and we’ll all be happy. 

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