Tom and Steve

President Tom Sutcliffe and Stephen Sondheim holding his award at the Menier Chocolate Factory. © Catherine Cooper Events

The Critics Circle

Sondheim receives our Annual Award for Services to the Arts

He came, we saw, he conquered

William Russell

Published: 10/03/2012

     Our annual award for Services to the Arts was presented to Stephen Sondheim on Friday, March 9, 2012 by our President, Tom Sutcliffe, at a lunch held in the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, home to some of the most successful recent productions of his musicals. The celebrated A Little Night Music and Roadshow, the latest incarnation of a show which started off as Bounce, were the most recent, the latter production being the first time the show worked. Presenting the award Tom Sutcliffe said“History shows contemporary taste and the criticism that follows or forms it have little to do with genuine standards or artistic achievement. But an award based on a majority of votes from five warring tribes of prickly, opinionated writers on the arts represents something quite a bit different from the Oscars, Tonys and Baftas, and all the other back-patting, self-serving razzmatazz of the trade. It is great you are here, and welcome to our British Pantheon."

Proposing Sondheim's health, Mark Shenton, chair of the Drama Section, said British critics had played a special part in Sondheim's life. "At a platform interview at the National Theatre back in 1993, he replied to an audience member who asked about the warm reception to his work in the UK that British audiences were interested in language and American audiences were not. "The first good notices I ever got were for the British production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was slammed to death by the critics in New York," he had added.

 Sondheim says in Look I Made a Hat that he learnt not to read reviews of his own work, although he says, “the temptation is hard to resist, but learnt to resist you do" Mark said. Then he also adds, "Reading reviews of other people's work is another matter", and that "a good critic can persuade you to attend something you'd never have imagined going to. A good critic is an entertaining read. A good critic is hard to find. Then, again, to a certain degree, good critics are no longer necessary to find. The phrase 'everybody's a critic' has taken on a universal cast." It was  a pleasure to welcome Stephen Sondheim to be amongst some critical survivors, and to bestow more than just our words of approval but also an award showing our approval, he added.


 Cargin, Shenton, Friedman

Mark Shenton, chair of the Drama Section, Peter Cargin, Hon Treasurer, and Maria Friedman © Critics' Circle


In response the great man was succinct to say the least. he admired the award, an engraved rosebowl, said that at least it was not a statue and was something one could use - like to put cash in, that he had more fondness for the critical fraternity in London than in New York as he had received his first good reviews in London, and thanked the Circle for the honour done to him. After that Maria Friedman sang three songs in his honour - Mrs Lovett's pie song from Sweeny Todd, the touching Isn't He Something from Roadshow and finally Losing My Mind from Follies. The great man circulated, chatted, signed autographs - some critics have no shame - and all in all it was a huge success. She also raised the roof after inviting Charlie Spencer on stage as her foil for the pie song and held a large knife to his throat - the dream of many a thespian. And not just his throat either.


Friedman and SpencerMaria Friedman does to Charlie Spencer what many have wished. © Critics' Circle


There are more pictures in Picture Gallery Six which will be in our History Section soon.


Enquiries about the Critics' Circle should be made to the Hon Gen Sec Rick Jones by email or telephone 020 8698 2460. 


The Critics’ Circle is the oldest organisation of its kind in the world and to date has over 500 members who work in the media through the United Kingdom. It is not a trade union but a professional association of critics of drama, art and architecture, music, the cinema, dance and books. As such it has no power but plenty of prestige and not a little influence. Its objects are to promote the arts of criticism and to upholds its integrity in practice, to foster and safeguard the interests of its members, to provide opportunities for social intercourse among them, and to support the advancement of the arts, Admission to membership is by invitation of the Council, who in assessing the qualifications of a candidate are influenced though not bound by the recommendations of the Circle’s competent Sections.

    In 1907 a Society of Dramatic Critics was formed. Among those present at its inaugural dinner held in Romano's restaurant were A B Walkley in the chair, J T Grein and John Parker. By 1913 the society had become inactive although there had been an attempt by Richard Northcott to prepare the ground for the creation of a Critics’ Circle. Then Sir Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, and President of the Institute of Journalists, suggested to his dramatic critic S R Littlewood that critics might with advantage be organised in a new body under the auspices of the Institute. Littlewood put the proposal to Grein, and he, with Parker in support, was enthusiastic, meetings were convened and the Critics’ Circle was born. At it first general meeting in the Hall of the Institute of Journalists Jack Grein took the stage and said – “Well, gentlemen, here we are! Let us do something. I propose that we begin by electing William Archer to the chair.” Archer then became president and Littlewood its Honorary Secretary to be succeeded in 1925 by Parker, who remained in that office until his death in 1952. In 1913 he had just finished the first edition of his now famous Who’s Who in the Theatre.

    Music as well as drama critics were declared eligible for membership of the Circle, and indeed the very first notice to be written by a member was of a pianoforte recital at the Queen’s Hall, to be followed a few nights later by the first play to be covered, George Alexander’s last revival, starring Mrs. Patrick Campbell and himself, of The Second Mrs Tanqueray, In those early days the Circle’s meetings were held in the hall of the Institute of Journalists in Tudor Street. The annual subscription was five shillings. Today it is £25.

    With the three founders being drama critics it was perhaps natural, if a little unkind, that the music members were styled the Music Committee (created in 1918 with Herman Klein as its chairman) whereas the drama representatives were named members, an anomaly not put right until many years later, In 1916 women were admitted to membership, The first lady members were Mrs Mabel Koopman who wrote for The Era and Mrs Cora Lawrence who wrote for Town Topics.

     In the following year a List of Members was issued (there were 80) with a foreword stating that the circle had been able to mediate successfully in several cases of differences of opinion between individual critics and theatrical managers and concert directors. In 1917 representations were made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding exemption of tax on Press Tickets, thanks to the support of an MP and the Institute of Journalists. This was the forerunner of many such intercessions, one of the most notable being the case of E Arnot Robertson, a film critic, who in 1948 brought an action for libel and slander against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and was awarded £1500 damages and costs. This judgement was reversed on appeal, and again on a further appeal to the House of Lords. The total cost to Miss Robertson was over £8000, but the Circle raised the money from it own funds, from individual members, and from the public.

    Another feature of the Circle’s activities was its annual dinner. Guests at these functions have embraced practically every leading practitioner of the performing arts – except Sir Thomas Beecham and Peter Sellers, both of whom accepted but did not turn up, In 1922 at the dinner held at the Savoy Hotel with Walkley in the chair one of the guests was Sir James Barrie, who dispensed with such formalities as “Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,” and began his speech -  “Scum. Critics to the right of him, critics to the left of him, critics upper entrance at the back leading to conservatory, critics downstage centre, into that Circle someone has blundered.”

   The chairman at these dinners was always the current president of the Circle, many of them have been celebrities in themselves. By this time membership of the Circle and risen to 100 and in 1924 the annual dinner was attended by 70 members.

    At another dinner in 1936 Sir Seymour Hicks presented to the Circle one of his most treasured possessions, Charles Dickens’ crystal drinking goblet, asking that it be used by the President “on all high occasions.” The goblet had been given to Hicks in 1901 by Dickens’ daughter Mrs Hogarth. It is still used “on all high occasions” notably at the annual lunch when the Circle's award for Services to the Arts is presented.

    At  the 1925 Theatrical Garden Party, then an annual event in aid of the Actors’ Orphanage, the attractions  included a short play written for the occasion by Ivor Brown with prologue spoken by Charles Morgan. The cast were all drama members of the Circle and notices appeared in the next day’s papers written by Seymour Hicks, George Grossmith, Evelyn Laye, Madge Titheradge, Gertrude Elliott and Lady Diana Manners, who all presented their fees to the charity. The dinner of that year was reported in the Daily Chronicle by James Agate.

    Film critics became eligible for membership of the Circle in 1926. Among the first was Iris Barry, then the film editor of The Daily Mail, who subsequently moved to America where she founded the film department of the Museum of modern Art and later became a curator. A year later in 1927 art critics were invited to become members, but this never really took off. (It was not until 2007 that an Art and Architecture section came to fruition). Critics of Ballet, subsequently renamed Dance, joined in 1951.

    In 1940 the designations Music Committee and Film Committee were at last abandoned and the three categories became the Drama, Music and Film Sections with a degree of individual powers, provided that their proceedings were reported to the main Council. A Television and Radio Section was inaugurated in 1971 – Broadcasting critics had been allowed in since 1924 – but this was abandoned a few years later because of the formation of the Broadcasting Press Guild.

    For many years the Circle held out against granting of awards, on the ground that criticism is essentially a matter of personal opinion and judgement and that any collective pronouncements are therefore worthless, since minority views would not be represented. Every individual favourable notice, it was argued, was an award in itself. This was upheld by a small majority in a 1956 referendum, though only some 20 per cent of members voted. However, this decision was reversed by a further referendum in 1980. The Film Section was first off the mark in organising awards which in the last few years have grown to the extent that they are now staged in a large West End hotel in aid of charity, attracting many celebrities from the industry, and being accepted as an extremely prestigious honour. The Drama Section Awards are deliberately more informal being presented by the critics themselves at a lunchtime gathering, which ensures that a high proportion of the winners are present. The Dance awards, known as the National Dance Awards since they are the only awards for dance in this country, were inaugurated in 2000. They have achieved considerable recognition in the dance world both in the UK and abroad. 

In 2011 the Music Section and Visual Arts Section presented their first awards, thus completing awards from all sections of the Circle.  The Music Section gave three awards for Exceptional Young Talent and one award for the Outstanding Musician.  The awards were presented to the winnners at events where they were performing thus receiving public recognition as well.  The Visual Arts Section first award went to an architect and an award in the form of a trophy created by a student at the Royal College of Art was gvien at an informal ceremony in London.

    Since 1968 the Circle as a whole has presented a special award to honour those who have rendered long and distinguished service to the arts. This now takes the form of a luncheon to which the winner is invited. The first recipient was Sir Peter Hall, the most recent being Peter Brook. Others to whom the award has been presented are Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Michael Tippet, Paul Scofield, Sir David Lean, Sir John Mills, Sir Peter Ustinov, Sir John Drummond, Sir Peter Wright, Sir Richard Eyre, Dame Judi Dench, Alfred Brendel, Sir Edward Downes, Harold Pinter, Dame Alicia Markova, Sir Ian McKellen, Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett, Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Tom Stoppard.



The Archive

Ten boxes of old letters, press cuttings, menus and membership books of the Criics Circle since its beginnings on the eve of the First World War are kept in a temperature controlled barn belonging to the Museum of Theatre History in Bristol. Nothing of ours is on display in the rather limited space, but that is not to say the contents lack entertainment value. The type-written correspondence with Peter Sellers gives away his panic on the day of the Circle dinner, for instance. At least he sent a note. Beecham gave a few days' notice and spoke at other dinners to the one he missed. Only the time it took (9.23-9.40pm) is recorded of his 1927 oration.