Michael Billington (critic)

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Michael Billington

Billington in 2010
Billington in 2010
BornMichael Keith Billington
(1939-11-16) 16 November 1939 (age 84)
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England
  • Author
  • arts critic
EducationWarwick School
Alma materSt Catherine's College, Oxford (BA)
  • Criticism
  • biography
Notable works
  • Harold Pinter (biography)
  • State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945
  • The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present
Notable awardsTheatre Book Prize
Jeanine Bradlaugh
(m. 1978)

Michael Keith Billington OBE (born 16 November 1939) is a British author and arts critic.[1] He writes for The Guardian, and was the paper's chief drama critic from 1971 to 2019.[2] Billington is "Britain's longest-serving theatre critic" and the author of biographical and critical studies relating to British theatre and the arts. He is the authorised biographer of the playwright Harold Pinter (1930–2008).[3][4][5]

Early life and education[edit]

Billington was born on 16 November 1939, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, and attended Warwick School, an independent boys' school in Warwick.[6][7][8] He attended St Catherine's College, Oxford, from 1958 to 1961, where he studied English and was appointed theatre critic of Cherwell.[9] He graduated with a BA degree.[8][10]

As a member of Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), in 1959, Billington played the Priest in The Birds, by Aristophanes, his only appearance as an actor,[11][12] and, in 1960, he directed a production of Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna, a performance of which was attended by Harold Hobson, the drama critic for The Sunday Times.[10] Although it won "an Oxford drama competition" and was an entry in that year's National Student Drama Festival (NSDF 1960), which Hobson had co-founded in 1956, Billington's directorial debut was not well received at the Festival, yet Billington credits Hobson with having "changed my life".[10] After the Festival, he decided to forgo pursuing a career as a theatre practitioner to "follow" Hobson's "footsteps" and become a critic of theatre too; five years later, they would become colleagues at The Times.[10]


After leaving Oxford in 1961, Billington began working as an arts critic in Liverpool for the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.[8] From 1962 to 1964, he served as public liaison officer and director for the Lincoln Theatre Company, in Lincolnshire.[7][13] From 1965 to 1971, he reviewed television, films, and plays as an arts critic for The Times; from 1968 to 1978, he was also film reviewer for the Birmingham Post, and from 1968 to 1981, for The Illustrated London News.[4][7] In October 1971, he left The Times to become theatre critic for The Guardian.[3] Beginning in the 1980s, he was a London arts correspondent for The New York Times,[14] and, since 1988, he has also served as drama critic for Country Life.[4][7]

Billington's broadcasting career had begun by 1965. Philip French, then a BBC radio producer, asked him to review two short radio plays by the then virtually unknown Tom Stoppard which were being broadcast on the BBC Third Programme.[15] Later, he was a presenter (and participant) in Critics Forum (Radio 3), which ended in 1990, and the Kaleidoscope arts programme (Radio 4). He has contributed to other British arts and drama radio and television programmes.[7]

Billington blogs for guardian.co.uk and previously also blogged for WhatsOnStage.com. Billington left his role as The Guardian's chief theatre critic at the end of 2019, although he continues to write for the newspaper.[2]

Academic work and conferences[edit]

Billington has taught in the University of Pennsylvania's Penn-in-London program since at least as early as 1997, and he teaches courses in theatre at King's College London, where he has been a visiting professor since 2002.[4][16][17]

After attending the December 2005 Nobel Banquet, in Stockholm, on the occasion of Harold Pinter's being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Billington attended the international symposium "Pinter: Passion, Poetry, Politics", which he had organised, in part celebrating Pinter's being awarded the Europe Theatre Prize, in Turin, Italy, in March 2006.

In April 2007, Billington presented an invited paper on "Is British Theatre As Good As It Claims?" to the Elizabethan Club, at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, prior to moderating a panel discussion at the conference Artist and Citizen: 50 Years of Performing Pinter", at Leeds University, where he attended and later reviewed the production Being Harold Pinter, by the Belarus Free Theatre.[18][19]

Biographical and critical studies[edit]

Billington is the author of several biographical and critical studies of subjects relating to British theatre and the arts, including books about Peggy Ashcroft (1907–1991), Tom Stoppard (born 1937), and Alan Ayckbourn (born 1939). He also wrote the official authorised biography of 2005 Nobel Laureate in Literature prizewinner Harold Pinter (1930–2008), which first appeared in 1996.

In March 2007 Faber and Faber published Billington's book State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945, which won the 2007 annual Theatre Book Prize from The Society for Theatre Research, presented to Billington by Sir Donald Sinden on 1 April 2008.[3][6][20][21][22] Billington has spoken about the book at various venues, including the Warwick Arts Centre at the University of Warwick,[5] and has reviewed his reviews.[23]

Following Pinter's death on 24 December 2008, The Bookseller reported that Faber and Faber planned "to rush out an updated version" of Harold Pinter, "which will take account of the international response to Pinter's death, ... at the end of January [2009]" and that it "will be released first as an e-book."[24]

Theatre work[edit]

As a director his work also includes The Will by Marivaux at the Barbican Conservatory, London, with an ensemble from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987; Pinter's The Lover and Strindberg's The Stronger at the Battersea Arts Centre in 1997, and in 2008 at the MacOwan Theatre, Kensington, Pinter's Party Time and Celebration with students from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.[25][26][27]

Personal life[edit]

Billington lives in Chiswick, London, with his wife, Jeanine Bradlaugh; the couple have one daughter. Billington is a supporter of the Labour Party.[4][28]

In popular culture[edit]

In fiction, Billington's name was introduced in Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham, later adapted for the Midsomer Murders television mystery series, in which DCI Tom Barnaby coaxes deluded local director, and double murderer, Harold Winstanly into accompanying him to the police station by suggesting Michael Billington and journalists from various respectable publications would be waiting to discuss his work.[29]


Billington was made an honorary fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford, in 2005[8] and was awarded an honorary doctorate by The University of Warwick in July 2009.[30]

He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to the theatre.[31]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Featured Alumni: Michael Billington: Author and Arts Critic, St Catherine's College". University of Oxford. alumni.ox.ac.uk. 29 October 2007. Archived from the original on 14 May 2008. Retrieved 8 June 2008.
  2. ^ a b Wiegand, Chris (5 November 2019). "Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington to step down". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 November 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Billington, Michael (3 October 2007). "Profile". Theatre & Performing Arts: The Blog. London: blogs.guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 6 June 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e Sleeman, Elizabeth (2003). "Billington, Michael". International Who's Who of Authors and Writers 2004. London: Routledge, 2003. p. 55. ISBN 1-85743-179-0.
  5. ^ a b "Events: Michael Billington: 'State of the Nation'". Archived from the original on 7 February 2008. Retrieved 8 June 2008.
  6. ^ a b Allen, Paul (4 June 2008). "Michael Billington, Stage Left". Times Literary Supplement. London: timesonline.co.uk, Arts and Entertainment. Retrieved 6 June 2008. A new history of British theatre explores the relationship between theatre and politics. [Book rev.]
  7. ^ a b c d e "Michael Billington". Contemporary Writers in the UK. British Council (Searchable database, Copyright, 2007). Archived from the original on 4 July 2007. Retrieved 6 June 2008.
  8. ^ a b c d "Michael Billington". Who's Who. A & C Black. December 2010.
  9. ^ Fisher, Mark (8 December 2019). "'With age, I get more tolerant of failure': Interview with Michael Billington". critical-stages.org. Retrieved 18 April 2021.
  10. ^ a b c d Haydon, Andrew (1 August 2007). "Critical Thinking". The Times. London. Retrieved 6 June 2008. 'In my second year at Oxford, I couldn't decide what career to pursue: I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be a director or a critic.' By the end of the festival Billington had decided to follow in Hobson's footsteps; in 1965 he started working at the Times as a theatre, film and television reviewer. In 1971 he became drama critic for the Guardian, where he has remained ever since. Of Hobson, Billington says simply, 'he changed my life'.
  11. ^ Billington, Michael (24 January 2002). "Obituary: John McGrath". The Guardian. London: guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 6 June 2008.
  12. ^ Senior, Ian (6 August 2004). "Strictly for The Birds: Michael Billington and Others". R Cubed News: A Review of Rotten Reviewers. No. 95. Archived from the original on 30 May 2005. Retrieved 6 June 2008.
  13. ^ Billington, Michael (5 June 2006). "Where Professionals Fear to Tread". Michael Billington Blog. London: guardian.co.uk, Culture Vulture. Retrieved 8 June 2008. When I worked at Lincoln Theatre Royal in the early 1960s....
  14. ^ Billington, Michael (15 April 1984). "'Voyage Round My Father' sails On". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 June 2008.
  15. ^ Billington, Michael (28 October 2015). "Michael Billington on Philip French: A kind man with an encyclopedic memory". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
  16. ^ "Penn English Program in London". Department of English London Program. english.upenn.edu. Retrieved 9 June 2008. The centerpiece of the program is the Penn Theatre course (ENGL068). Participants study with the renowned Guardian theater critic, Michael Billington, and visit the theater weekly as part of this course.
  17. ^ "Theatre Schedule: Spring 2008: With Critic Michael Billington". Department of English London Program. english.upenn.edu. Archived from the original on 3 June 2008. Retrieved 9 June 2008. Fall 2006 [Schedules of past academic semesters listed in reverse chronological order].
  18. ^ Billington, Michael (16 April 2007). "The Importance of Being Pinter". Michael Billington Blog. London: guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 8 June 2008.
  19. ^ Billington, Michael (15 April 2008). "Belarus Free Theatre Will Not Be Silenced". Michael Billington Blog. London: guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 8 June 2008.
  20. ^ "Guardian's Theatre Critic Scoops Book Prize". The Guardian. London. 1 April 2008. Retrieved 5 May 2020.
  21. ^ "Michael Billington Wins STR Theatre Book Prize with The State of the Nation". The Society for Theatre Research. str.org.uk (official website). 1 April 2008. Retrieved 6 June 2008.
  22. ^ Page, Benedicte (20 September 2007). "Books: Michael Billington: Taking Centre Stage". The Bookseller. thebookseller.com. Archived from the original on 14 October 2007. Retrieved 8 June 2008.
  23. ^ Billington, Michael (6 November 2007). "The Reviewer Reviewed". Comment Is Free. London: guardian.co.uk (Blog). Retrieved 8 June 2008. We all love seeing our work praised, but I most relish the well-aimed critical arrows. Honest. (7 moderated comments, with "comments now closed.")
  24. ^ Wood, Felicity (7 January 2009). "Faber Rushes Out Billington Ebook". thebookseller.com. The Bookseller. Archived from the original (Web) on 28 September 2011. Retrieved 13 January 2009. [Correction by Peter Scott:] Pinter was born in 1930, not 1939.
  25. ^ Oddy, Julian. "Marivaux (1688–1763) Adaptations/translations by Modern Playwrights" (Web). The Playwrights' Database. doolee.com. Retrieved 22 October 2008.
  26. ^ Morley, Sheridan (19 April 1997). "The Critics – Up For Review (Battersea Arts Centre)" (Web). The Spectator. Findarticles.com.
  27. ^ "Party Time & Celebration". lamda.org.uk. Student Productions at LAMDA's MacOwan Theatre. London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Archived from the original on 26 October 2008. Retrieved 22 October 2008.
  28. ^ "The Big Interview: Michael Billington – Interviews – The Stage". 3 May 2015. Archived from the original on 30 July 2015. Retrieved 19 June 2017.
  29. ^ Graham, Caroline (2007). Death of a Hollow Man. London: Hodder. p. 325. ISBN 978-0-7553-4216-7.
  30. ^ Dunn, Peter; Abbott, Tom (2009). "Honorary Degrees for Pensions Campaigner, World Trade Director and Theatre Critic". Warwick News and Events. University of Warwick. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  31. ^ "No. 60367". The London Gazette (Supplement). 29 December 2012. p. 9.


Books by Billington
Book reviews
Biographical profiles
Media participation and clips

External links[edit]