Interview: Nicholas de Jongh

Nicholas de Jongh is famous for his savage reviews — and he wrote his own play last year.

By John Nathan, August 27, 2009
Jasper Britton and Leon Ockenden in Nicholas de Jongh’s debut play Plague Over England, which opened to positive reviews

Jasper Britton and Leon Ockenden in Nicholas de Jongh’s debut play Plague Over England, which opened to positive reviews

It is four months since Nicholas de Jongh wrote his swansong article for the Evening Standard as the paper’s theatre critic. His final duty was a lunch held in his honour by the Critics’ Circle a few weeks ago. After the lunch fellow critic Charles Spencer spoke about how he used to dislike De Jongh when he first knew him, but is very fond of him now. And that’s the thing about Nicholas de Jongh. The better you know him the more you like him.

But when it was announced last March that at the age of 61 de Jongh was retiring after nearly 18 years in the job, every arts journalist, every avid theatregoer, every director, actor and playwright would have taken a moment to pause from doing whatever it was they were doing when the news reached them. Some might have smiled. Others would have sadly noted the passing of an era. But everyone would have wondered — “Did he jump, or was he pushed?”

It’s the kind of question that would have been uppermost in De Jongh’s mind when he was a boy watching pot-boilers and whodunnits with his school theatre club.

“They were conventional, ghastly Agatha Christies,” says de Jongh contemptuously.

De Jongh is good at contempt. His theatre column has been described variously as cutting, severe and savage. One observer described him as the most hated critic in the country. De Jongh’s career was marked by some of theatre’s most entertaining feuds, the oldest and most famous of which was with Steven Berkoff who threatened to kill De Jongh after a bad review. (Although Berkoff recently wrote to the Standard regretting De Jongh’s departure.)

“But they were a very potent influence on me,” De Jongh says of those ghastly plays he saw as a schoolboy, “and theatre became a passion.”

We are sitting in the kitchen basement of his Georgian house in Islington where he has lived for 18 years and de Jongh is smearing generous layers of cottage cheese on several mini round matzahs for our lunch. It was his intention to do this interview in the garden for fear that I would make sneering reference to the “gay art” in his living room. This happened, he says, in an interview for another paper he did after he announced that he was giving up writing reviews for writing scripts.

The career change seemed reasonable. His play, Plague Over England, about the scandal surrounding Sir John Gielgud’s arrest in 1953 for “cottaging”, was still in the West End. But the announcement followed the Standard’s change of ownership to Russian tycoon Alexander Lebedev, which fuelled speculation that de Jongh’s retirement was not entirely his own choice. Still, Plague Over England had gone down as a critical success and de Jongh had just been commissioned to write the screenplay version. Not bad for a first-time playwright. There is plenty of precedent for critics moonlighting as theatre practitioners — Kenneth Tynan, Sheridan Morley — but there were still those who carped that this critic got a better reception from his colleagues than his play deserved.

Predicting this, one producer suggested De Jongh use a pseudonym for his play, revealing his identity only after the reviews came out. Surely a good idea. “Certainly not. There was nothing to be ashamed of,” says de Jongh, intentionally missing the point.

But were not the colleagues he met nightly at the theatre more likely to pull their punches?

Nicholas de Jongh

Nicholas de Jongh

“But you forget,” says de Jongh, “that I don’t socialise with or speak to all the critics. You’re suggesting that I have some kind of friendly interchange every night. There are quite a number of critics I don’t know and don’t speak to.” This much is true.

To many, de Jongh cut an aloof, stiff and unapproachable figure in the theatre stalls. This was partly because of his chronically bad back which is so painful he often required two seats on which to sprawl while watching plays. He would sit across them diagonally, one leg stretching into the aisle, the languorous look only increased by his blithely unbuttoned shirt.

But anyone who has engaged de Jongh in conversation would find a courteous, softly spoken and disarmingly considerate fellow that belied his prose.

“I did write quite sharply,” he admits with understatement, adopting the past tense surprisingly quickly.

“It was an antidote to a prevailing softness, perhaps. Actors get more praise in 10 minutes than most people get in a lifetime. If they don’t want to take the knock they don’t have to read the reviews.”

The long-lasting pinnacle of de Jongh’s career began in 1991 when Paul Dacre (now editor of the Daily Mail) offered de Jongh the chance to replace Milton Shulman as theatre critic of the Evening Standard. De Jongh, who had had enough of being the number two reviewer at the Guardian, grabbed the opportunity.

He was raised in Hampstead, the son of a GP. His mother trained as an actress though there was no particular encouragement from her to go to the theatre. It was a secular household. “I was brought up by parents who had no religion so I feel a metaphysical Jewishness but not a practical Jewishness.”

There was though a Russian grandfather on his mother’s side who spoke Yiddish and his mother’s sister was Dora Gaitskell (wife of the Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell) who “was very motivated by the ness goes for de Jongh, apart from the matzahs.

“Although,” he adds, “I certainly react very strongly to Death of a Salesman which I think is a very Jewish play. Arthur Miller never had the balls to be open about that fact, and it was probably a commercial imperative that moved him towards that decision. And Woody Allen, I find, strikes strong chords with me. But his disturbed psyche which guides him again and again into playing unattractive middle-aged or elderly men around whom highly desirable young women swarm, owes everything to fantasy and nothing to reality. This I find deeply repellent,” he says, as forthright in person as he is in print.

Of his countless reviews, there is only one that in retrospect he thinks he got wrong, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. And so, back on theatre, we turn to the elephant in the kitchen. It is hard to describe to those who don’t know, how the rhythm of theatre-going so utterly defines a life. I ask him to describe how not going has made him feel.

“Very strange indeed. Theatre is an addiction. But I had for several months been thinking about stopping and
trying to write. I feel in limbo. It’s an extremely odd sensation. It’s not upsetting. It’s disturbing. I feel as though I’m dead and a ghost looking down on everything.”

It was recently reported that he was still on the Evening Standard’s award panel. But he is not. So how much theatre does he see?

“Not much.”

I remind de Jongh that the day after he announced he was leaving his job to concentrate on script writing, I congratulated him. His answer — “There’s nothing to congratulate me about” — was, I thought, quite revealing. There’s another pause.

“There’s a confidentially clause about my leaving. I know people think I was got rid of. I had brooded over the idea of stopping but I can’t really comment beyond that because of this confidentiality clause.”

Is it for ever?

“I don’t know. I must ask my solicitor.”

Last updated: 1:59pm, August 28 2014