Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Love Affair With Newspapers: an interview with Tom Stoppard

This article uses excerpts of a taped interview with Tom Stoppard conducted by BJR editor Bill Hagerty. British Journalism Review Vol. 16, No. 4, 2005, pages 19-29;

"Until I was 16 or 17 I had no idea what I wanted to do. Then, when the idea of journalism came up, I thought: 'That's it!' It was instant and final."

Tom Stoppard’s journalism career began when he was just finishing his A-Levels. He took a job as a junior reporter in Bristol and in 1954 took a position at the Western Daily Press covering the local government and city council. "I was in heaven — I loved everything about it."

After writing for the Western Daily Press, Stoppard moved to the Bristol Evening World. But his stay in full time journalism was short lived when he "got turned on by what was happening in the theatre." After six years at the Western Daily Press, Stoppard gave his notice and began writing plays. Continuing to freelance as a journalist to supplement his theatrical income, Stoppard contributed to an Arts page, something he claims turned out to be a "crash-course in culture, because I was writing pieces about things I knew nothing about on Tuesday, but knew enough about by Friday to do 800 magisterial words."

When the Bristol Evening World closed its doors, Stoppard was interviewed by London’s Scene magazine and offered the job as a theatre critic. Using his own name and the pen name William Boot (when there were multiple articles in the magazine), Stoppard continued critiquing theatre while simultaneously writing for stage, screen and radio. During the 1960s and 1970s, Stoppard wrote successes like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1964/1967), Albert’s Bridge (1967), Enter a Free Man (1968), The Real Inspector Hound (1968), Jumpers (1972), and Travesties (1974). His passion for theatre escalated, and his journalism contributions gradually ceased, but his love of newspapers and news did not.
"In the 70s and 80s, when I was involved in dissident stories in Russia and Czechoslovakia, my refrain was that a free press made all the other freedoms possible, and by that I didn't just mean an uncensored press. I meant an untrammeled press.

This is what got me into writing a play about journalism in 1978. I knew I'd have to write one one day. There's a line in Night and Day that people are always quoting or misquoting – 'I'm with you on the free press, it's the newspapers I can't stand,' and because it's the only line people remember, they assume it's my entire view of newspapers. But, as I said, the good stuff is still good. I admire huge amounts of it, mostly people who go out there and file a story. From the very beginning I've admired foreign and war correspondents, all the way back to Sefton Delmer and Noel Barber, all the way forward to Robert Fisk. I don't give a damn about Fisk's so-called bias, I'm a thinking animal, I can deal with it, I can read round him – the point is it takes courage to be out there and get the story."
Today Stoppard reads many newspapers. "I take only three morning papers now, but I'm thinking of going back to four. [...] On Sundays it's The Observer, Times, Telegraph and Independent. I also take the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, New York Review, Spectator, New Statesman, The Week... sometimes I think I'll cancel the whole damned lot. My papers are on my doormat, five floors up, before seven o'clock."

In the end, Stoppard says that "in all the newsprint I've read there isn't a sentence I'd rather have written."