Milton Shulman was born in Canada in 1913 and educated at the University of Toronto.
He served with the Armoured Corps and Intelligence in the Canadian Army 1940-6 and was mentioned in dispatches in 1945.
His long career in journalism began at the Evening Standard and Sunday Express in 1948 when he was engaged as a film critic. He was theatre critic for the Evening Standard form 1953 to 1991, winning the IPC award for Critic of the Year in 1966. He was also a commercial television executive and a BBC radio broadcaster.
His memoirs, Marilyn, Hitler and Me, were published in 1998. He died in May 2004, six years after I interviewed him in November 1998.
He was an interesting character to meet, having lived his life to the full. However, I found many of his theories about the Second World War, although extremely fascinating, to be rather far-fetched. But who knows, they could be plausible.
Here is the full text of the interview.
In your memoirs, Marilyn, Hitler and Me, you say: ‘I have no deep curiosity about who I am.’ You are not keen either to analyse yourself or have others try to analyse you. Is this maybe because you are afraid of what you might discover?
All my analyst friends tell me that I have something deep down that I want to hide. Well, maybe I do, but it doesn’t bother me. My father died when I was six so I was brought up by my mother and an unattractive step-father – that might account for my indifference to discovering who I am, but I don’t know. What I do know is that today I am nothing like what I was at twenty-one. It seems as if I’ve had about three or four different lives and each one has come to me by accident.
Have you ever wondered what your alternative history might have been if, for example, your parents had not emigrated to Canada?
If they had not emigrated to Canada I would have gone to Auschwitz or Belsen. My parents lived in the Ukraine and most Ukrainian Jews were eventually either murdered during the Russian war or put in the gas chambers. I always think of myself as having escaped that fate by the accident of my parents having been frightened by the pogroms under the tsars in 1909 and 1910 – that’s essentially why they came to Canada.
Your lack of curiosity seems to extend to your father who died aged only twenty-six in the post-World War I flu epidemic. Naturally you have hardly any recollections of him, but you seem not to have asked your mother what he was like. Haven’t you wondered, for example, what qualities of character he might have passed on to you or might have bequeathed to your children?
That’s a question I’ve often asked myself. You have to understand that my mother didn’t read or write English until she began taking English lessons when she was about fifty. So communication with her on the things that mattered was practically nil. I used to ask about my father, and why, for instance, I was given the name Milton. I asked if my father read a lot, and if he knew who Milton was. But my mother had no idea, and after a while I realized that there really wasn’t much point in pursuing the secret of my early life. She was not obstructive in any way; she just didn’t think these things mattered very much.
Do you actually feel Canadian? Or after all these years in England, do you think of yourself as British?
I don’t think of myself as Canadian, but everybody else does. In this country you’re always a foreigner. I’ve been here for over forty years and people still refer to me as the Canadian this and the Canadian that, even though I’ve been back to Canada only once about twenty years ago.
One of your earliest memories is being ill in bed with flu and listening to your mother cry because your father had just died. The nurse looking after you complained: ‘Why do these Jews have to wail so loud?’ – which was your first recollected experience of anti-Semitism. Were there to be many more throughout your life?
Oh, my whole early life was dominated by anti-Semitism, but as a Jew in those days one accepted it – it was quite natural. I imagine it was like blacks today taking it for granted that there will be prejudice against them. In my youth the Jews in Toronto ran their own tennis clubs, their own golf clubs, their own university fraternities; you set up a community within the community, and you never expected anybody in Toronto to give you a job in the big industries, the banks or insurance companies. I tried to get into these jobs after I left university in 1934 but they wouldn’t even answer the letters. Before long we had fascist parades and riots in Toronto, pro-Mosleyites parading up and down the streets, and so when I was about nineteen, I became involved in what was called the Anti-Defamation League which was very strong on defending Jewish interests. Anti-Semitism to me is normal – I don’t resent it any more. I just assume everybody is anti-Semitic at some stage.
What causes people to be anti-Semitic? Is it part of the Western culture, do you think?
Yes, I think it is. The Christian ethic has so permeated the West, and even though the Pope has now forgiven the Jews, the majority of Catholics don’t want to forgive the Jews. In America and elsewhere neo-Nazi groups are on the rise. It seems everybody has to have a bogey, somebody who is inferior. And it’s always possible to make a Jew inferior, no matter how rich, how prosperous, how important – Rothschild himself is less important than the dustman’s feet because he is a Jew. Anti-Semitism is everywhere. There’s a very well-known editor who was at the Garrick the other day – I don’t want to give you his name – and someone asked him, where do you rank Jews? And he said, ‘I rank Jews somewhere between blacks and homosexuals.’ This man is a so-called liberal journalist, someone who writes columns all over the place who is recognized as a very important liberal figure. He knew I was there, and I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt me – it was just a sort of glib remark.
You say early on in your book that for some inscrutable reason Canadians are regarded as a bit of a joke … have you perhaps also suffered from anti-Canadian prejudice to some extent?
I don’t want to sound paranoiac, but being a Canadian Jew is about the worst background for achievement you can have in our society. For some unknown reason Canadians are counted a bore in this country. It’s not so much that people are anti-Canadian; they’re just indifferent to Canadians. They regard them as even less important than Belgians.
You rose from your bed one morning with the firm conviction that Jehovah did not exist. How complete had this been, this ‘obliteration’ as you put it?
Total, total. I was brought up in a very Orthodox Jewish home. My grandfather lived with us and he used to go to the synagogue every day and my mother used to keep all the things necessary for Jewish practice. We even had a little boy who came in on Fridays to turn the lights on, because Jews aren’t meant to turn the lights on. I’m told that in some parts of the East End today there are still boys who come in to turn on the television set. In my view, making a little Gentile boy take on the sin because Jews want to watch television is about as hypocritical as you can get. Up to about the age of fifteen, I was so frightened of Jehovah that it ruled my life – everything I did, everything I ate, whether I rode a bicycle on a Saturday, and so on. But then I began to read and gradually I became paralysed by doubt and eventually it began to seem that there was no Jehovah. First of all, the Jews have no image of him; you don’t see him, he’s just a voice up there, thundering down. He’s never kind to you, he’s always threatening you, and after a great deal of thinking about it, I woke up one day and decided, he doesn’t exist. I was no longer frightened. From then on I shed my feelings of sin and guilt, and I don’t believe in an afterlife; I see death as going to sleep; it just comes, and you won’t wake up in the morning, that’s all. Logically it is very strange for anybody to be very religious.
But do you feel relaxed about it?
I don’t feel relaxed about it in a way, because when I think of all the great minds who even today believe in the fundamental tenets of some religion or other, I think there must be something wrong with me, that I somehow lack the capacity for religion.
You say that you have never been seriously troubled by any anxieties about sin or guilt since that time. Does that mean that there is no non-religious context for the idea of sin or guilt? Doesn’t an atheist feel guilty?
I might feel guilty about personal things, but I don’t feel guilty before God, no. Also, I don’t press people one way or the other. My wife is religious, and my children have been brought up to be religious. I always told them when they were young that I would leave it up to them, and indeed they went their own ways. My second daughter, Nicola, for example, has had all her children baptized, and I attended all the baptisms.
So you’re not hostile to all religions as such?
I’m hostile when it moves into the spheres of ultra-fundamentalism, whether Jewish, Arab or whatever.
I was interested to read that in moments of great sorrow, such as the death of your mother, you find yourself whispering the words of a Hebrew prayer. Doesn’t this rather suggest that you want the comforts of religion without the challenge?
Well, you make me sound like I’m a hypocrite. And I suppose it is sitting on the fence to some extent, the fact that I do say a small Hebrew prayer almost every night. But if there is a God, then he will forgive me for saying I’m not religious, otherwise he would be pretty mean. A proper judgement would be to look at the whole measure of my life.
Very often the children of those who have abandoned their faith and ‘married out’ return to their Jewish roots and are reconverted. How would you feel if this happened?
My children seem to be set on not being Jewish as far as I can gather. Nicola is married into the aristocracy and is now a marchioness, but although she’s had the opportunity of divesting herself of her maiden name, she writes literary reviews under the name of Shulman. Her sister Alexandra has done the same.
You describe as the most important decision of your life the moment you volunteered for the Armoured Corps during the war. What were the feelings which informed that decision – was it duty, was it ‘King and Country’ patriotism, or what?
As a Jew I knew that as soon as we got to war with Hitler I’d have to join up. Even before the war I took night courses in artillery and infantry, and I became qualified as an officer before I signed up for the army. When I first tried to sign up, nobody wanted me because the Canadians had no equipment to form some kind of unit. My mother was terrified of my going in, so I was under her influence to some extent, but in the end it was something I just had to do. I was a Jew and it was imperative that I took part in the struggle against Hitler.
You had a ‘good war’, as they say, and your memories of it form a fascinating part of your autobiography, especially the chapter on your dealings with Hitler’s generals. It is not the case, however, that von Rundstedt’s claim of being forbidden by Hitler himself to attack the British at Dunkirk is only half true? According to official reports, Hitler eventually left it up to him, and it was in von Rundstedt’s delay of forty-eight hours that the war can be said to have been lost?
I saw these generals before anybody else did after the war since I was one of the official interrogators. I was a major at that time, and I was doing it for the historical department of Canada. The main concern of these generals at that time was to blame Hitler for their defeat, because Hitler had dominated them all their lives, and the whole Wehrmacht had been turned into a sort of organization which carried out orders. In this particular case von Rundstedt told me that Hitler was afraid of the dikes and the canals in that area, and he thought his tanks wouldn’t be able to get through them to attack the British who were waiting to get off the shore. Von Rundstedt told him there would be no difficulty, but Hitler wanted to have enough resources to attack Paris. That was his main goal, and he figured that if France fell Britain would obviously fall next, so for that reason he wanted to keep his resources. Hitler was all for peace with Britain, because the British Empire and the Catholic Church were the two institution which were going to make his conquest of Europe total. So it’s a question of whom you believe, but I myself think that von Rundstedt would have wanted to wipe out the British troops if he had been given the authority, and for whatever complicated reasons he was not.
Even more fascinating is your account of Operation James Bond in which Martin Bormann was allegedly extricated from Berlin and brought to England in return for his signature on documents that would release millions of German Nazi assets held in Swiss banks. Do you still believe this to be true?
I believe it even more now, because of the lengths to which MI5 and the intelligence services have gone to kill this story since the revelations. They have taken fantastic trouble to make it a laughing stock, and they’ve succeeded brilliantly, because to mention the word Bond is a music-hall joke now. They have planted Bormanns all over the world – in Venezuela, in South Africa, everywhere. A man called Peter Hartley, for example, was brought out of prison, given this persona, and masqueraded as Bormann. Another device was to bring out a book just before ours, written as a spoiling operation, entirely designed to rubbish our book. A television outfit then came to interview us to try and expose us as charlatans and spent at least ten thousand pounds on a fifteen-minute programme. Now anyone who knows anything about TV finances knows that that kind of money could not have been spent unless the company involved was financed by somebody with an agenda. About six months ago I received a death threat telling me that if I didn’t stop investigating this business, I would be killed. I couldn’t go to the press about it because they would regard it as a publicity stunt to plug my book. But I telephoned Scotland Yard and they took it seriously and spoke to the German police about it, but again something happened to make them decide to take no action. OK, so it’s an outlandish story and it’s terribly difficult to believe, but the more I read and the more I discover the more I believe it’s true.
Why do you think Bormann had such a great influence on Hitler?
People like Schellenberg and Goering always said that Bormann was the most important man. Hitler only trusted Bormann. If you look at a book called The Rape of Europa, a fantastically detailed account of all the pictures and works of art taken out of all the European countries, it shows that Bormann had inspected every one of these pictures before he went to Hitler and told him which ones to keep and which ones to sell. Bormann was also Hitler’s sole executive – he was there at his wedding, he signed the marriage certificate, and he was supposed to have been there when Hitler committed suicide. Everything about Bormann indicates that his relationship with Hitler was closer than those of Himmler, Goering, Gobbels put together.
I know that investigations into the role played by Swiss bankers are still going on. How hopeful are you that the truth as you see it will eventually emerge?
We’ve done everything we can, I think. We’ve sent letters to the Jewish World Organization, who are investigating the story, and I wrote my book partly to alert people to the possibility of what happened. In the papers I was called a dupe and reviewers wondered why I had fallen for this incredible story. But the truth is that not one of the historians or journalists who reviewed it ever produced a single fact showing that what I said was untrue. For instance, none of the biographers of Ian Fleming – there are two or three of them – is able to say what he was doing from January 1945 to April/May 1945. All they say is that he was on intelligence duties; in effect he disappeared for those four or five months. As regards to the Swiss banks, I believe that they have had to reveal what they have had to reveal only very reluctantly. If it were found that they were in cahoots with the British and Americans for cheating posterity of all these millions, particularly the Jewish victims, there would be a tremendous row. So I think the Swiss banks are keeping their heads down over this.
Just two months before you left Canada for England you married for the first time, but in fact you parted for good and you never saw your wife again. Did you suffer feelings of regret about this episode in your life, or were such things regarded as casualties of war?
We’re talking about a separation of almost four years during the war, and that is a long time for people to be apart. When I came here I had to decide whether or not to stay here and be a journalist, or go back to Canada and be a lawyer. If I had gone back it would have been to a domestic life with a wife, and my prospects of being a writer would have been killed. So I more or less stalled. I was having an affair with somebody here with whom I was very much in love – it had gone on for about a year and I didn’t want to leave her. My wife, I think, was already involved with somebody else, and so it was just a natural progression. We had never lived together, we had never even unwrapped out wedding gifts – it was a non-marriage.
In those days adultery was the only acceptable cause for divorce, something which seems absurd now. Did it seem absurd then also?
Of course. My girlfriend and I went to Brighton, the Grand Hotel I think it was, and we had to make sure – by giving huge tips – that the waiter and the housekeeper would remember seeing us in bed together. That was the only way you could get a divorce, by independent witnesses saying they had seen you in an adulterous situation.
You say in your book that you have every sympathy with Sir John Betjeman who said towards the end of his life that his greatest regret was not having had enough sex. How exactly would you define enough?
That’s a terrible question. Enough, I suppose, is the level at which you feel that you don’t need it, that you can go to bed at night without having the urge, that your equipment doesn’t respond any more. I’ve never yet reached that situation, so it could perhaps be said that I’ve never been totally satisfied in terms of quantity, though I’m very satisfied in terms of quality.
I was also intrigued by your remark: ‘I have never been sure, whenever I have bedded a woman, whether I was the victor or the vanquished.’ Can you elaborate?
Very early on I became a well-known figure in England. After about two years as a film critic in 1946-7, I was spread all over the Evening Standard and Beaverbrook warned me when I got the job that I would have to be careful. He said they would try to bribe me with liquor, money and women, and I thought to myself that it sounded the best job I could possibly be offered. There were actresses and other girls for short periods of time – I never allowed myself to get into a situation where they could ever believe that it might be a permanent relationship, but of course women tend to boast about the men they sleep with. Nowadays the Daily Mail gives women fifty thousand pounds if they reveal that they’ve gone to bed with someone important, but in those days nothing like that happened, and everybody was very discreet. The only other thing I can say is that in those days it was quite a victory to get a girl into bed, and it usually took a long campaign of taking them out to dinner two or three times, flowers, chocolates, the lot. But girls found my personality attractive and I didn’t seem to have a problem.
You have been married to Drusilla Beyfuss for over forty years … is that attributable to good luck or good judgement, would you say?
No, it’s a tribute to the tolerance on the part of Drusilla. The fact that she has put up with my vagaries for forty years is quite something. I haven’t been a perfect father, in the sense that I hardly saw my children when they were young because of the work I had to do. I was a theatre critic for thirty-eight years, and almost every night I went to the theatre from six o’clock to ten o’clock and then I wrote my notice until one o’clock, so there was no chance in that period to see any of the family. I used to take the children out on Saturdays and give them Coca Cola, but that was about as far as my fatherly efforts went. Drusilla had to do it all, and even though she was a journalist too, she managed to raise the children and keep a job and make a contribution to the household resources, and the fact that she tolerated me all these years is something that I very much cherish.
You became a socialist at around the same time as you became an atheist. Were the two connected in your own mind?
There was a vague connection, but my socialism sprang more from anti-Semitism and Hitler. At that stage the only people who were seriously attacking Hitler were Communists and Socialists; indeed far too many people on the right wing in Britain and Canada had vague sympathies with Hitler, and thought he wasn’t too bad. I could have joined the Communist Party, but I was always frightened of Communism, so I became the representative of the Canadian Socialist Party, and I represented them for three years in this country after the war, taking over from Robert Mackenzie of swingometer fame. I took up with Barbra Castle and Healey and Michael Foot – in fact Michael became my best friend and was best man at my wedding. Everything was fine until Hungary and Czechoslovakia and then I realized that socialism was a road to tyranny and inefficiency. I slowly moved away from my deep socialist convictions to become a neutral for a short time and then eventually became seriously anti-socialist. I still am anti-socialist, just like Tony Blair and the whole Labour Party, except for a few die-hards.
Your journey from socialist idealism in impoverished youth to right-wing prosperity in middle age has a familiar ring to it. What finally seemed to turn you off was ‘the winter of discontent’ after which the Labour government was deservedly rejected. Surely, however, you would agree that socialism has come a long way since then?
I don’t think it has come a long way. A lot of people believe that underneath it all Tony Blair is probably the most radical prime minister we’ve had for decades. He is breaking up Britain, and there is no doubt that if the Scots vote for independence and the Welsh vote for a kind of independence and we get an English parliament, then Canada will go, Australia will go, New Zealand will go, there won’t be even a remnant of the empire left. The Queen will have nobody to rule over, and we will become the Bulgaria of the North Sea. Some surveys show that something like fifteen or twenty per cent of people are mentally unbalanced, and they form a significant part of our electorate. We are in the ludicrous position of electing a government on about forty per cent of the vote, with the result that the rest of the people are under some kind of democratic dictatorship. Tony Blair now is as much a dictator as Hitler was; he can do anything he wants, he can even get rid of the Queen.
But don’t you have sympathy with the idea of creating a fairer society?
A fairer society, as you call it, is what is generally known as egalitarian, and egalitarianism is probably one of the worst philosophies that has ever bothered mankind. The idea that everybody is responsible and equal has come to mean not that everybody is responsible, but that everybody has the right to everything. We’re into a kind of nutty thinking that believes every dustman should get as much money as newspaper editors and people running companies of sixty thousand people. Egalitarianism as a basis of socialism is vicious. And political correctness is an even more horrendous thing. I have a children’s book which is about a pigeon in Trafalgar Square – it’s sold about a hundred thousand copies and I want to get it reprinted, but the children’s editor at Collins tells me we can’t because pigeons are a nuisance and the book is not politically correct any more.
I actually meant a fairer society in the sense that people are given equal opportunities, not equal pay…
You can’t give equal opportunity, because people haven’t got the ability to take advantage of equal opportunity.
You chose to educate your children in the private sector, but you seem to feel the need to justify doing so. Why? Is it because you accept it is divisive?
I don’t think I ever attempt to justify it. I’ve always spent a good deal of my income on education, and also on private medicine, believing, as Bernard Shaw believed, that I was contributing to the upkeep of socialism by doing so. I was helping to maintain the public sector in nursing and education by paying twice over, by paying normal taxes on my earnings and by paying a vast sum of money to keep the private sector going. I’ve therefore never understood the claim that we are parasites; we are actually the opposite. My children went to St Paul’s, which is the best school in England, and the idea that I should have deprived them and sent them off to a comprehensive school because of some egalitarian idea that even Tony Blair doesn’t subscribe to is absurd.
As a journalist you have waged many campaigns – one of the most interesting on behalf of war criminals who, in your view, should not be pursued so many years after the events. They are old men now, you say, and proof positive is impossible to obtain. Is there not a problem, however, about the idea of justice being contingent upon the passage of time?
The cases I campaigned for were very specific. They involved two minor people, one who was pursued till he died at eighty-odd, and the other, an old man who is still being pursued. They were both tiny figures, both corporals or sergeants in Belorussia. Britain spent fourteen million pounds on the first trial and they will probably spend another ten or fifteen million on the second, trying two minor individuals. Most of the other countries who have tried war criminals had real villains, concentration-camp people who were responsible for the deaths of millions. We on the other hand have been working on these trials for I don’t know how many years now, and wasting the country’s money in what I regard as an amoral way, in the sense that the whole concept of British justice is being abandoned to bring about these trials. It is the same sort of philosophy which has led to the Pinochet business. We passed a law enabling us to prosecute people who were not British, who killed people who were not British, in a country that was not British; because of some vague idea about humanity we granted ourselves the right to prosecute them. Pinochet committed the crimes in Chile, against Chileans, in a country that has nothing to do with us, but because of the legislation over war crimes we are entitled to try anybody in the world who commits crimes anywhere in the world against people we know nothing about. To me that is such a weird concept in philosophical and judicial terms that I simply cant take it.
The Nuremberg trials, in which the plea of ‘only obeying orders’ was ruled out, came as a surprise to the Nazi leaders. At the time, or in retrospect, do you think that justice was done?
Justice was done against those people, yes. You must remember that in the First World War we didn’t have a war-crimes tribunal. The Kaiser and his men were not brought before a jury and indeed they were honoured figures in their country even though they had committed crimes, slaughtered Belgian babies, and so on. When it came to the Second World War, Bormann and people like that never thought were going to be tried, or if they did, they thought that they might get three or four years after which they would live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
You were astonished to discover how ordinary and ‘just like anybody else’ were the German military – far removed from the Hollywood stereotype. The things that they did, however, were extraordinary in the extreme and not at all ‘just like us’. During your interrogation of them, did you conclude that, given their history, we might have behaved in the same way?
Yes, I’m sure we would. If Hitler had won the war and had taken over Britain, he would have done away with trial by jury, the right to defend oneself in certain circumstances, the right of habeas corpus, and so on. And I’m sure we would have gone along with it – the vast majority of people would have been happy. There would have been an underground movement, probably financed from Canada where the Queen would have been sent after the war, but you can’t have an underground movement against tyranny unless you have hope of victory. When the French had no hope of victory the Maquis didn’t exist, or hardly existed; they started to take an active part only in 1943 after the Americans came in. By then they could see that the Germans were going to lose the war, but before that very few of them stuck their necks out.
Another notable campaign of yours has been against violence on television. Your arguments are very persuasive, but I wonder why you distance yourself so completely from the argument that sexual permissiveness on television also has an effect on society. In fact the greatest rise in crime figures is in the area of sexual assaults…
The sexual argument is entirely against the violence argument. Television has a pollutant effect and it has been shown that from the age of six or seven to fourteen or fifteen, violence comes to be regarded as normal. Once that happens, it’s only natural that sex crimes become part of the picture. Stamp out violence on television and you’ll stamp out some of the concomitants of which sexual violence is one.
Back in the 1970s you fought a campaign against what you saw as LWT’s failure to live up to its promises. Frank Muir said to you at the time: ‘You’re like a man who is worried about the population explosion so he goes out and shoots a couple of his friends.’ What was your reaction to that remark?
I still say that the quality of television is dire. Now even the BBC has followed the trend and is dumbing down. Nobody is interested in quality any more. This interview is refreshing because it is on a level which is unheard of in normal newspapers now. Nowadays everything has to be geared to an ill-educated society which can just bear to read the Star or the Sun or the Mirror. At one stage I had great hopes for television; I thought that if you changed television it would somehow have an effect. It’s too late now.
In your years as drama critic at the Standard you have seen everything and everybody worth seeing in English theatrical life. And yet you seem very hard to please…
There are so very few great talents, so very few people with genius in any field of activity, be it music, theatre, art, or anything else. I suppose I have come to recognize that the theatre is an entertainment and that people go to the theatres as they might go to a restaurant, or go to a circus – to be amused, to have a moment of fun. Perhaps I was too hard on a lot of the plays, and didn’t sufficiently take account of people’s need to be amused in that way.
You seem very reluctant to apply the word ‘great’, far less ‘masterpiece’, to any performance or production. Do you think these words of praise are too often squandered?
They are squandered all the time. Frankly, my colleagues are simply keeping their jobs. If they really adopted high standards there would be no need for critics, you know, because there wouldn’t be much to write about. Even very good critics find two or three masterpieces a year. They have been encouraged to be lenient by their editors who don’t want too much criticism of the arts in their newspapers.
Is there a play or performance which nevertheless stands out as the greatest in your experience?
The greatest play undoubtedly is Hamlet. I am overwhelmed every time I see it, and could see it every day of the week. Olivier as Hamlet was a performance I will never forget and it is a standard for acting in a great play that is very difficult to match.
One of the chapters in your book is entitled: ‘No Statue Has Ever Been Put Up for a Critic’, and indeed critics as a species are much reviled. Has that aspect of things ever seriously bothered you?
No, it’s never bothered me. I didn’t want to hurt people, and I always looked with regret at actors taking their bow at the end of a performance when I knew there was a chance that they would lose their jobs the next day. That was an ugly responsibility, but I always thought to myself that there were about eight or ten critics in the country, and I was just one. Another critic would probably take a different view, so I stopped feeling guilty.
Is there a review that you seriously regret or that you know was unjust?
I don’t think so, although my judgement may occasionally have been wrong. For instance, Waiting for Godot may indeed be a great play. I have rather changed my mind about it and realize that not only did I underestimate it, but I didn’t understand it when I first saw it. But Look Back in Anger I regarded as a second-rate play when I first saw it, and I still think it’s a second-rate play.
Are you yourself sensitive to criticism? Sheridan Morley’s review of you autobiography must surely have hurt…
Of course it hurt, particularly because it was Sheridan Morley and he was supposed to be a friend of mine. I don’t believe he read it all. I think he read only my chapter on the theatre and he based his entire review on that tiny segment. I was very upset because it was the first review, and it was in the Sunday Times which is after all a very important paper.
You include Diana, Princess of Wales, and Marilyn Monroe in your list of twentieth-century icons, and indeed they have much in common – blonde, beautiful, unintellectual and dead in mysterious circumstances at much the same age. Is it this last unhappy fact that makes them stand out from all the rest and will make them unforgettable?
I think they were lucky to die young. If we had seen a sixty-five-year-old Marilyn Monroe, as we see a sixty-five-year-old Ginger Rogers, the whole glamour would have gone, and I think Diana would have been the same. If Diana had married Dodi I think she would have disappeared out of the icon league because of what people would have regarded as bad judgement on her part. Both Marilyn Monroe and Diana loved the camera, and the camera loved them. Diana was also a great actress and she recognized very early on the importance of being photographed with a starving black baby. It was a wonderful image in her fight against Charles. Her involvement with Dodi led to a kind of tarnishing of the icon image, but now that she’s dead the icon will manage to survive.
Are you resigned to oblivion when you die or would you like to think that there is an afterlife?
I belong to one of the most underrated professions in the world, namely journalism. Journalists are underrated because we call ourselves hacks and scribblers, we denigrate ourselves all the time. We forget that Orwell, Belloc, Chesterton and Graham Greene were all journalists – even Evelyn Waugh was a journalist at one time. I’d certainly rather be remembered as a well-known, successful journalist than a critic. As far as I am concerned, however, my books are all that will remain of me after my death. All my books are bound, so that they look as if they’re Balzac or Anatole France, and I don’t know which of my children is going to get them. But they are my only monument.