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A room with a review: critics on the art of home working

The Guardian logo The Guardian 29/03/2020 Interviews by Killian Fox
Mark Kermode sitting at a desk in front of a stuffed animal: Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Mark Kermode

Chief film critic for the Observer since 2013

Mark Kermode sitting at a table with a teddy bear: Mark Kermode in his office at his New Forest home with his cat, Harry. © Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer Mark Kermode in his office at his New Forest home with his cat, Harry.

“Every now and then, in the middle of Tuesday afternoon, when you’ve seen a run of really bad films – Mighty Pups, say, followed by some terrible Michael Bay movie – and you’re scuttling from one screening room to another, and it’s raining, and you’ve got a deadline, and you’ve been up since 5am, and you think: ‘Ohhh, life is so hard!’ But then you go: ‘Hang on a minute…’” Mark Kermode takes a breath and reflects on his professional fortunes. “When I went to the school careers office, they told me I should probably work in an insurance office. Instead,” – he draws the next six words out for emphasis – “I watch films for a living. Which is astonishing to me. I should never ever complain about the job that I have, because I have the best job in the world.”

Kermode got the job as the Observer’s chief film critic in 2013, taking over from the late, great Philip French, who was retiring after 50 years in the role. Prior to that, he had written for Time Out, NME and Fangoria, as well as broadcasting about film for the BBC and Channel 4. Each new gig delighted him, but when the Observer first got in touch in 2003, asking him to fill in while French was away, Kermode recalls being “completely overwhelmed” by the opportunity. (Aptly, given his love of horror films, his first review was of the Japanese chiller Dark Water.)

Every week I am filled with the absolute belief that what I’ve written is the stupidest thing anyone has ever written

Every Monday and Tuesday, in normal times, Kermode travels to London from the New Forest, where he lives with his wife, the film studies professor Linda Ruth Williams, and watches eight or nine films in Soho’s screening rooms. He takes notes as he watches – “I don’t use a light-up pen or any of that nonsense, I just taught myself to write in the dark” – jotting down things that particularly strike him, “like the composition of a shot, or a particular line, or the use of a piece of music, or a striking juxtaposition of scenes”.

Agreeing on his film of the week with his editor at the Observer, he gets his notes in order on the train home and writes his column on Wednesday morning. Kermode admits to finding writing “the most stressful thing on Earth”. After filing at 1pm, “I worry away at it for the rest of the afternoon while subbing queries come in. And then it goes off on Thursday and I am filled with the belief that what I’ve written is the stupidest thing anyone has ever written ever and it will bring the newspaper to its knees. Then it comes out on Sunday and it starts all over again.”

In spite of this, Kermode’s love of film criticism runs deep. As a kid, growing up in Hertfordshire, he used to keep notes of all the films he watched. Now, in his home office crammed with movie memorabilia, books and DVDs, he is adamant the form remains as vital and relevant as ever in the social media age.

He welcomes one significant change. “There have always been brilliant female film critics, but I think people finally started to realise that the fact that a room full of the same ageing white blokes wasn’t doing anybody any good.” His Observer deputies Wendy Ide and Simran Hans are, he says, brilliant. “Working with them makes me constantly up my game.”

The career moment I’ll never forget

“The Sunday that the first review I wrote for the Observer came out, I remember sitting with the paper open on the kitchen table, just looking at it going: “I’ve arrived.” I thought to myself, look, I’m in the Observer, I must know what I’m talking about!”

Laura Cumming

Art critic for the Observer since 1990

a woman sitting on a table: Laura Cumming at home in London, in front of a painting by her father. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Laura Cumming at home in London, in front of a painting by her father. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“It seems to me it comes in three stages,” says Laura Cumming of the process of reviewing art for the Observer New Review. “First, there’s the exhilaration of seeing the show. Then there’s the torture of thinking it through; and finally the torture is relieved by the writing.”

Cumming has been working through these stages on an almost weekly basis for more than 20 years. Born in Edinburgh to artist parents, she studied English literature at university and started out as a producer and presenter for the BBC. Her deeply held interest in art was channelled first through radio shows on painting and then through writing for the New Statesman and the Guardian before she became the Observer’s art critic in 1999.

Over the years, Cumming has taken great pleasure in witnessing artists embrace “film and video and performance and installation and ballet, and every other field that has come into art to enrich it” – and she still feels exhilarated every time she goes to a gallery. “The prospect of each new show,” she says, “is like virgin snow.”

Thank God for deadlines. I love the clarity they impose on your thought

She prepares by poring over the catalogue and soaking up everything else she can find about the artist, from books to online video clips. Then she goes to a critics’ preview, usually on the weekend before her review comes out. Making notes and sketches with pen and paper, she also uses her phone to “photograph astonishing details that I know I will never see again – I’ve got billions of them stored away”.

Occasionally, she’ll catch herself saying out loud things like “shocking, shocking” or “for God’s sake!”, but there’s rarely anyone around to hear it, because, as she acknowledges: “We see exhibitions when the galleries are completely empty, which is of course both an enormous privilege and an unreality.”

Back home, in south London, she commits her notes to laptop and lets it sit, usually overnight, while she wrestles with “the thinking bit, which is the torture”. Then comes the release. “I write in our bedroom in the loft – I don’t have a study,” she says. “And I write a lot in bed, because I don’t really have a desk either.” The words come slowly. Reviewing a Jackson Pollock retrospective early in her career, she spent eight hours writing and rewriting the first paragraph. “So thank God for deadlines,” she says. “I love deadlines. I love the clarity they impose on your thought.”

What’s striking about her home in Clapham, which I visited before the coronavirus outbreak, is how little art there is on the walls. She has some reproductions of prints, notably “a blow-up of Las Meninas [by Velázquez] on a big card, which I love looking at”, but otherwise it’s mainly work by her parents – her father James’s geometrical paintings (an example is in the photograph above), her mother Betty’s tapestries. “I don’t collect art,” she says. “I’m not acquisitive. I’m much happier seeing it in its natural state in the wild, in the gallery, rather than in my house.”

There are things that dismay her about her field. “One big change in the past couple of decades,” she says, “has been the crowning of curators – sometimes you are following a curator’s mind rather than an artist’s.” She is suspicious of the commercial workings of the art world and tries to steer clear of curators, artists and publicists when seeing shows. “Our job,” as she puts it, “is to be critics, not courtiers.”

For all that, reviewing for the Observer is a high point of Cumming’s week, which is also taken up by authoring books (On Chapel Sands, her 2019 memoir-through-photography about her mother has been shortlisted for many awards). Despite the torturous moments that precede the writing, “it is not agonising,” she insists. “It is an absolute privilege and a total joy.”

The career moment I’ll never forget

“In 2006, before the Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery, I came upon one of the paintings laid out on a table while conservators were trying to work out whether or not a fleck of paint had come off the surface. It was a scene like The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp, with low lights over the painting and people in white gloves carefully examining whether or not they’d lost a dot of light on the hem of an infanta’s gown. They hadn’t, as it turned out, but to be in the room and be able to see what they were looking at in such close-up was extraordinary.”

Bidisha

Observer dance critic since 2019

Bidisha sitting on a bench in front of a house: Bidisha in her garden. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Bidisha in her garden. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Bidisha has written about books, art, film and music since she was a teenager, but when she became a regular dance critic last year, a role she shares with the critic Sarah Crompton, she almost couldn’t figure out how to handle it. “Every single person I spoke to said: ‘Don’t you realise it’s absolutely the dream job?’” she laughs. “And I realised that my feeling was actually just sheer disbelief that I get paid to do something that doesn’t feel like work at all.”

The role fits seamlessly with her wider career as a journalist, writer and film-maker – and her natural night-owl tendencies. “I get home at 11, so if you finish by two that’s just a normal bedtime,” she says. “The most fun thing is coming home, making the decaf coffee, and then sitting at the computer. The street’s really quiet; your thoughts are really clear.”

Her pre-virus morning routine may prompt howls of jealousy in those working nine to five: she usually sleeps till 10.30. “That’s the norm – but I get most done in the evenings, I’m most awake then.”

I love to people-watch beforehand – dance audiences are the most fabulously dressed

Bidisha also finds it rather helpful to have to go out a few nights a week. “I love to work from home because you just get so much more done. But we’re living in a time of increasing atomisation, where we watch films on our laptops, we watch TV on our laptops, we read at home, so being pulled out is incredibly valuable.”

Plus writing about dance has a fruitful impact on her own creative practice of making short films: “You learn so much about how to present something dramatic from dance. It’s teaching me a lot about lighting and music and costume, about editing and storytelling.”

If she’s reviewing in the evening, Bidisha will spend the day catching up with life admin before heading to the theatre for 7pm. “I love to people-watch beforehand – dance audiences are the most fabulously dressed,” she says.

She’ll take “very complete” notes during the performance, so that almost the whole review is in her notebook by the end. Writing it up involves topping and tailing with context and interpretation. “But I’m very, very against obscurantism,” she says vehemently.

“A lot of critics fall into the trap of saying ‘Well, this Beethoven was nothing like when I saw it in New York in 1974’. It’s a form of willy-measuring, and I can’t stand it.”

Bidisha’s approach is simply to describe the movement. “People think you need a special kind of vocabulary for dance, which you don’t at all. You don’t have to find a story; just sit back and enjoy it. And that’s what I try to do.”

But for all the joy, criticism is still a job. “I’ve stopped going with friends because they’re a bad influence! We always wound up having two martinis and dinner at 11. Now I eat enough at five so I’m full during the performance, then have hot skimmed milk when I get home if I’m peckish.”

She also tries to leave as quickly as possible. “It’s not a night out, so I just want to pack up the stuff, and beat the rush for the exit.” That means that she – and the other critics, usually sat on the ends of the row – scoot out without applauding. “And it’s because we’re cynical, jaded hacks,” she admits. “How many times can you possibly clap for a thing?”

Interview by Holly Williams

Rowan Moore

Observer architecture critic since 2010

a person standing in front of a door: Rowan Moore at home in east London, in the extension he designed for his late wife. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Rowan Moore at home in east London, in the extension he designed for his late wife. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Before Rowan Moore became a full-time architecture critic, he worked on the other side of the fence, training as an architect and co-running his own practice until 1994. Though he went on to edit Blueprint magazine and review for the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard – as well as heading up the Architecture Foundation from 2002 to 2008 – his early experience helped him appreciate the difficulties of the profession from the inside. “Although I criticise architects,” he says, “I think to put up a building that has some kind of intention to it, that realises an idea, is a hugely impressive achievement.”

Moore, who joined the Observer in 2010, considers it his job to weigh up “broader issues around architecture as well as architecture itself”. Instead of simply writing about “a single work by a master of the art form”, he’ll think carefully about the people who move through the building, the area in which it stands, and the social, political and economic factors that shaped it.

One unusual aspect of his job is that – unlike other forms of criticism that, in normal times, depend on a weekly schedule of releases – it’s not always clear what he’ll write about. Sometimes, in the absence of a new building or exhibition to assess, “it’s a case of making your own story”, he says. Lately, this has meant taking aim at Tory planning policies or surveying architectural responses to the climate crisis.

I just wander around with my laptop and write wherever I fancy

Another difference is that Moore’s job often involves speaking to the people whose work he’s critiquing. “I don’t believe in writing about buildings as magical objects that just appear one day, because they’re always there for a reason, or many reasons,” he says. “So I talk to people – clients as well as architects – and ask them what they’re trying to do.”

He jots all this down in a notebook and snaps details with his phone, before heading home to write – ideally over a couple of days so he can take a fresh look at his copy before filing. Having previously worked on daily newspapers with fast turnarounds, Moore finds it “a fantastic luxury on the Observer to be able to take more time over articles”.

He’s susceptible to the odd bit of procrastination – “I distract myself by looking at football results and the news” – but when it comes to writing Moore doesn’t seem at all precious. “I can write with noise in the background,” he says, and at home in Whitechapel, east London, “I just wander around with my laptop and write wherever I fancy.”

There is plenty of space to wander around in: his home consists of two smallish 1830s terraced houses joined together, with dividing walls removed on the ground floor so that the kitchen opens into a spacious living room with a huge desert-scape by his painter friend Jock McFadyen on the wall.

At the back is a long, gently sloping extension which was added to accommodate Moore’s late wife Lizzie Treip, who was diagnosed with MS in her mid-30s. By 2011, she was using a wheelchair and no longer able to access the bedroom and bathroom upstairs. “The extension was about giving her everything she needed without any steps,” says Moore.

It was also about “enhancing the house rather than the opposite”. When architects design for disability, “there’s still a bit of an attitude that if you’re fixing somebody’s practical problem, they should be grateful for it,” says Moore, “even if it’s really ugly and messes up the house.” With this extension, which slopes gracefully down to a bedroom and bathroom, opening on to a garden with decked pathways amid sumac and eucalyptus trees, Moore and Treip, who died in 2017, were challenging that view.

In its joyful layering of different periods, the house repudiates one of Moore’s pet hates in architecture. “When I started out in the 80s, the dominant narrative was: modern architects have messed everything up,” he recalls. “Now lots of people get the idea that modern design can do something for you. But it’s the opposition of modern and old that I find very unhelpful.”

Though he expresses strong views in his columns, and mostly regrets “the ones when I was too nice – when I tried too hard to be positive in a situation where it wasn’t warranted”, Moore doesn’t regard himself as a “final arbiter” on any given project. “I have a viewpoint that I think has a validity, because I know about this subject and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at buildings,” he says. “But whatever I write, it’s not the be-all and end-all – it’s a contribution to an ongoing process of understanding architecture.”

The career moment I’ll never forget

In 1986, after finishing university, he went to Los Angeles to write some magazine articles, which put him in contact with Frank Gehry and other interesting architects. “The climate in Britain at that time was extremely suspicious of new architecture, so it was really exciting and encouraging to go to California, where there was a very positive view and really interesting things going on. It gave me a lot of faith that new buildings could be good.”

Susannah Clapp

Theatre critic for the Observer since 1997

a close up of a book shelf: Susannah Clapp at her home in King’s Cross, London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Susannah Clapp at her home in King’s Cross, London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“Sideways,” is how Susannah Clapp describes her route into writing about theatre. In 1994, after years of working in and around the publishing industry – she helped found the London Review of Books and wrote a biography of the writer Bruce Chatwin – she was asked to review plays for the BBC Radio 3 arts programme Night Waves, a gig that involved dashing straight from the theatre to deliver a “match report” on the latest stage action. Moving into print, Clapp reviewed for the New Statesman before becoming chief theatre critic for the Observer in 1997.

Having spent so much time focusing on the written word, “it was exciting to work in something which also required you to think about how things looked,” she recalls. “Theatre involves so many different reactions – acoustic, visual, working out how people’s gestures influence or interrupt what they say – all of which is instantaneous and can’t be captured instantaneously in a book.”

One of her aims, starting out, was to avoid writing literary reviews “which suggested that plays were composed of cut-out text walking around the stage”. Instead, she wanted “to write about [characters] as if you’re writing about an enhanced group of friends, or enemies, a hyperactive piece of life, and I suppose that’s joy of it – that, at its best, theatre either takes you out of your life or further into it.”

I always think about the first thing I’d say to describe a play to a friend

The fact that “there are so many different things going on at the same time” on the stage is endlessly compelling. “Even if you’re squirming with boredom or frustration, you can isolate an element of design, or the one actor who elevates it – and if it’s simply a travesty, that in itself is interesting.”

For her Observer column, Clapp usually reviews three plays per week. This involves a considerable amount of pre-planning – she keeps a “long, obsessive list” of forthcoming openings around the country. Even when the week ahead has been finalised, she can never be quite sure, until she’s seen them all, which of the three plays will be her lead review. As a result, “the major part of the writing always gets done at the last minute”.

She makes notes in the theatre, “but they’re often unreadable because I don’t have very good handwriting”, she says. “Quite often, I forget to turn over the page and I find that I’ve written my already indecipherable scrawl on top of something else – but I hope that the act of writing fixes it in my mind.” She tries to identify her “line” on the play in the same night – “just simply, whether I liked it or not. And what is the first thing I would say about this if I were describing it to a friend?”

There are a number of small but niggling dilemmas that accompany a theatre critic through her week. The hours are odd – you’re starting work when others are clocking off – and the timing of dinner is often fraught. “Do you eat beforehand and risk getting sleepy? On the other hand, if you go hungry, and there’s a play with a lot of eating in it, it’s a nightmare.”

It’s odd, too, rubbing shoulders with fellow critics night after night – “we share a vocabulary, we share a task, though we’re not exactly colleagues” – while having to resist discussing the play at hand, lest it sway your opinion. “It’s certainly the most male profession I’ve ever worked in – much more male and, of course, white than broadcasting or publishing or literary journalism. It’s changing now, but very slowly.”

Home is a flat overlooking a square near King’s Cross, London. Here Clapp does most of her writing in her front room, which is lined with play texts, theatrical biographies and reference books, though she sometimes works in a cafe or library. “I am a big believer in walking as writing (or vice versa),” she says. “If I get stuck, I charge around the square and often find a sentence slips into place. I work out what I think more easily on the hoof – going to or from the theatre, or emptying the rubbish – than when stooped over my desk.”

The career moment I’ll never forget

Punchdrunk’s site-specific production of Faust in a warehouse in Wapping – a meticulously created Edward Hopper world with bubbling test tubes and stinky herbs and extraordinarily fragrant pine forests. When I came out, I felt that my eyes and my body had been dismantled and put back together, and I looked at what I saw in a different way.”

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