In response to the defence of The Footlights, TOMMY SHANE argues for the importance of criticism over blanket praise.

What I’m about to do feels a little vindictive and perverse. Vindictive for attacking a much-loved institution at the heart of our university, and perverse for following a defence with an attack, when Patrick Brooks seems to have popularly fought the Footlights’ corner. Isn’t everyone already being a bit mean by not holding the Footlights’ hands and sheltering them from criticism? No, you big bunch of wusses.

Brooks does The Footlights a disservice with his article, as their only defence can and should be their comedy. Taking to The Tab to try to convince you a comedy troupe is ‘genuinely funny’ embarrassingly suggests the exact opposite. I agree with Brooks that generic anti-Oxbridge criticism is lazy, boring, and ultimately irrelevant. But the fact is that The Footlights have been struggling in the past couple of years, and as critics, it is our job to point that out.

I really, really hate it when third years start talking about things at Cambridge from before most people arrived, flaunting their knowledge of a nostalgic and rose-tinted yesteryear. But I do want to put this into the little context that I can. The Footlights when I arrived in 2011 was led by Phil Wang, the Chortle Student Comedy Award winner of 2010, basically crowning him the best that there is in student comedy. His name is bandied about a lot round here, and deservedly so. But behind him was a wealth and depth of talent. Pierre Novellie was 2012 Chortle Award finalist, and performed the excellent hour-long stand-up show Nonsense, as well as single-handedly establishing the Corpus Smoker. Behind him was Ahir Shah, who has recently returned with a brilliant stand-up show, the staggeringly funny George Potts, the hilariously lanky Lowell Belfield, and many, many more that it is superfluous to mention.

I appreciate that these names won’t mean a whole lot to most readers, and I do get that this is pretty annoying. But to put it into perspective, the 2011-12 Footlights also had within this cohort Harry Michell, the guy that most of you will recognise as having been the funniest man in Cambridge last year. And yet he barely featured. Rather than having to sideline a talent like Harry Michell because of such a large number of comedians, this year The Footlights had to pull in Rosa Robson for the Panto, who actually graduated and left Cambridge last year. It seems inarguable to me that if there was a sufficiently talented group in Cambridge they wouldn’t have to do this, irrespective of Robson’s evident talent.

The point isn’t to be mean about the current members of The Footlights, but to point out that we are not currently experiencing a golden age of The Footlights like we’ve seen in the past, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. There is, however, brilliant comedy being produced in Cambridge right now. It’s just not coming from The Footlights. Tom Fraser’s sketch show Spleen, for example, far exceeded anything The Footlights have produced in recent times. Its wit, originality and confidence made it far better than ‘Canada’, the 2013 Footlights tour show. And equally Three White Guys presented two brilliant comics, Ken Cheng and Bhargav Narayanan, neither of whom are members of The Footlights. And yet these productions will struggle to sell-out, unlike the effortless ticket sales produced by the mere mention of The Footlights’ name. The Footlights should always be under pressure to justify this different treatment.

The pantomime sells out every year

The pantomime sells out every year

But it’s difficult to make these points given the climate of fear around criticising The Footlights. I should know – I gave The Snow Queen a bad review, and it was definitely a scary process. Being critical of anyone in the tightly-knit Cambridge theatre scene is difficult, but this is especially so for such a well-established and seemingly invincible institution. (It must be said that I did make things slightly worse by attending the Panto’s after-party – but honestly this really was only so that I could wingman a friend. And, incidentally, this was when I first met Jessica O’Driscoll Breen, so naturally I have no regrets.)

Brooks was right to single out that terrible and now infamous ‘mixed bag’ review of the Smoker – I wrote it, and it is an example of lazy, tangled and incompetent writing. The Tab commenters are ruthless in attacking poor writing in The Tab – and so they should be. When writing is bad, criticism should be severe. And the same goes for the theatre. If we want The Footlights’ name to mean something, we must have high standards for their productions. Whether or not you agree that there is a current lull in the quality of Footlights, attitudes like Brooks’, wherein critics should be kind and comforting to The Footlights, is poisonous to the maintenance of their reputation. If we want The Footlights to be good, we must tell them when they’re bad.

Any student journalism that wants to be taken seriously must encourage reviewers to have high standards for The Footlights, because criticising them is daunting. And equally, any Footlight that wants to be taken seriously should accept and use the criticism they receive. The rest is all bollocks.

  • Fair

    Play

  • Question Man

    Uh, Rosa Robson may have graduated last year but is she not still a member of Cambridge, doing a masters/something similar?….

    • Yes

      I think so. And the Pantomime is a joint effort between the ADC and Footlights, so of course most people in the panto weren’t in the footlights.

      • Hold up

        1) Robson is still studying at Cambridge so the whole talk about her being ‘roped’ in is utterly irrelevant: she elected to audition, and was cast on the basis of her talent.

        2) ‘Of course most people in the panto weren’t in the Footlights’? There’s no ‘of course’ about it. It’s an audition like any other, meaning that the best people for the job are cast. If anything it would be reasonable to think that the ‘Footlights’ (I put this in inverted commas for a reason which I’ll outline later) are at an advantage, as it’s their venture, but even this is proven not to be the case as some of these ‘Footlights’ did not get in, despite having auditioned.

        3) The focus on the pantomime as representative of the talent of the Footlights is unfair and inappropriate, because pantomime and sketch comedy are completely different skills. The Footlights are known for their comedy, and so to judge them based on their preeminence in a genre which is not their forte is silly and pointless. It’s like criticising a dancer on their ability to figure-skate: the two are related, but ultimately require different training, attitude etc etc.

        4) If it’s not a good showcase for them why is it still called the “Footlights’ Pantomime then?”‘ I hear you say. Well, although it has been pointed out already in this article that talking vainly of the past is irritating and annoying the answer to this lies there: that the ‘Footlights Pantomime’ as we know it today has changed shape considerably in the past five years. It used to be something far less commercial, much more awkward, dominated by committee members, and took the form of a sketch show shoe-horned into a shape that vaguely resembled a pantomime plot. The year that the hugely successful double-act The Pin (Ace Owen and Ben Ashenden) starred in it they still had to go out into town and flyer: there was none of this two-week sell-out run business, because it was not the all-singing all-dancing visually spectacular event that brings in the families with children (family is, after all, the target audience for pantomime). That their name is still attached to it is an overhang from the days when it was very different show, and one that did show them off to their best abilities and played to their strengths: sketch comedy.

        5) All of this talk of ‘Footlights’ and trying to number them as units is completely silly as people have different opinions on what constitutes being ‘a Footlight’. What is implied in this article is that being ‘a Footlight’ is to be on the Footlights’ committee. By that card, then, neither Robson nor Matty Bradley (writer and performer in Canada) were Footlights, despite their obvious and considerable commitment to their name and success. That’s 50% of the performers on the tour. By the very same token, Leo Cairns (their Junior Treasurer), can be called a Footlight having never set foot in a smoker, or any of the shows they put their name to. Constitutionally speaking, you are technically a ‘member’ of the Footlights if you are on their mailing list! The name of the Footlights should, in my opinion, embrace all those who write and perform for the society, otherwise I think you’d find the ratio of Footlights to non-Footlights in smokers verging on embarrassingly low.

        • Matty

          Bradley was vice president?

        • Matty Bradley

          was committee, he was Vice President.

  • Stephen Fry

    “People always say, ‘Footlights are shit this year, have you heard?’ ‘Oh yeah, I heard they’re shit too.’ It’s the same every year. When we had our show in Edinburgh we could overhear people saying that in the street.”

  • um

    tom fraser will probably be footlights pres next year and spleen perform regularly in smokers yaknow…

  • Why

    is the pantomime the main standard? Panto isn’t exactly the best canvas to showcase original, subversive, unpredictable writing. Possibly why the Footlights aren’t a good gauge of Cambridge comedy – they spend all of first term doing *that*.

    • Well

      The best of the Footlights – Alex Mackeith, Jamie Fraser, Ben Pope, Ryan Ammar et al. spent most of first term doing smokers (as well as two of them having written the panto)

  • Jessica ODB

    Tommy when are you going to actually ask me out IRL?

  • Right

    Panto auditions are open to everyone, not just ‘footlights’. Having to draft in someone who’s graduated reflects on the university’s acting pool, not the quality of the footlights committee. There was only one footlight in the entire cast this year – Ben- and he was possibly the funniest performer.

    Also, for most of the 2011/12 year, Harry Michell wasn’t on footlights. And, he was only a second year. Comics tend to get better each year. Phil was a fourth year when he was president (though admittedly did win Chortle between his second and third).

    Basically, we haven’t actually seen the current footlights do a ‘proper’ show (i.e. sketch show) since they became footlights. Judge them on the revue next term.

  • Unfair Comparisons

    This article isn’t as well written as stuff written by some of the other writers to come out of Cambridge, like Tennyson or Hughes.

  • Ken

    Firstly, thank you for the kind words.

    You make a lot of good points. Criticism is important, especially for the performers themselves, but also the indirect effect of the audience getting better shows.

    But there is nothing more ineffective than bad criticism, or lazy criticism, and that’s what Footlights-bashing sometimes comes down to.

    Sure, it’s got a lot of better since the days of Milo ‘For Fuck’s Sake’ Yiannopoulos – http://cambridge.tab.co.uk/2010/03/10/review-smoker-2/ – but I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase “from a Footlights show I was expecting more.”

    I don’t really blame reviewers because not only is it really hard to write a review, few reviewers stick to the comedy-reviewing game long enough to get good at it or know enough about comedy. And I’d prefer there to be a review by anyone than none at all.

    But that’s a real problem for the purposes you’ve mentioned: it’s hard to accept or use any criticism that is badly written and therefore easy to disagree with and ignore.

    In some ways I agree with the notion that Footlights always sells out and therefore there needs to be more incentives to keep them producing quality.

    But at the same time, they are writers who all want to produce something great and that somewhat goes beyond journalistic criticism, especially as no one’s really taken it that seriously.

    Yes you’re right the golden age of Footlights is gone. The two-year stretch of Fiddaman and Wang’s committees was so ridiculously full of talent that in hindsight it was stupid to think that could be the norm. But how useful is it to constantly compare current committees to them, or to compare Canada to Perfect Strangers or The Snow Queen to Treasure Island? That’s what a lot of the criticism boils down to: it’s descriptive not evaluative.

    It’s not enough to tell Footlights when they’re bad, it’s about the why and how. If someone wrote a sketch that wasn’t funny, they probably know it and it’s no good telling them just that. Nor is it useful to tell people that they aren’t George Potts.

    But if you were able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with a show then that’s something that simultaneously useful, a more qualified opinion than that of the average audience member, worthy of print, and criticism that will be read and respected: THAT is the job of the reviewer.

    • Patrick

      Yes.

    • Tommy

      I’m not sure I was trying to suggest that severe criticism is for the incentivisation of Footlights, but rather that each successive year should have to justify their inclusion in an institution that reaps the rewards of its reputation. My main problem is that Footlights shows, like the tour show, the pantomime and the revue, are rarely as funny as other productions – that isn’t arbitrary ‘Footlights bashing’.

      I also would just say that I have and would never try to presume to be able to instantly grasp what makes good comedy, and I would ask you to have the same respectful precaution in assuming you know what reviewing is for, and what makes it good. Reviews aren’t just for you Ken; they are also to judge for the recommendation to potential spectators, as well as help them know what they’ll be watching; and on top of that, to be interesting and entertaining writing in and of themselves, even for those not watching the show. This is a difficult balance, and one, like many of The Footlights sketches, that isn’t right every time – or even much of the time. It’s a complex thing. But you are of course right that criticism can only be useful if it is insightful and justified.

      • Ken

        But you did suggest that with the line “if we want them to be good we have to tell them they’re bad”, which I took to be the crux of the article. And I think that’s a good point which is why I based my response around that point.

        Of course reviews have other purposes, though I would argue if you wrote about hows and whys it would encapsulate all of the above.

        I assume you meant reviews are not only for me as a comedian, then in theory true (I’ll get to why only in theory later). But I’m an audience member, a fan, a potential spectator too, (especially when it comes to sketch comedy because I’m not involved) and I think I know what I want from a review based on those.

        But yes, the potential spectators point is an important one. I think Hulk nails it best in this article (http://badassdigest.com/2013/05/01/film-crit-hulk-smash-why-reviews-are-weird-and-how-you-can-best-enjoy-iron/ ) in that reviews are just flat out weird.

        If they are for potential viewers then it is a weird one sided conversation, and that’s why reviews only serve the recommendation angle entirely through the star rating. I don’t read whole reviews until after I’ve seen the show (a lot of people don’t read them at all). The same applies to films which have been reduced to aggregate sites like rottentomatoes.

        If someone really had a decision about wanting to see something, they’d ask their friends who have seen it and check the star rating, and they’d probably value the former’s recommendation more.

        I’d say in reality, you might as well write your reviews directly those in comedy or who have a keen interest because they’re the only people who will definitely read them.

        The body of the review now only serves to justify the rating, and to justify why there should be someone in an elevated position to dish out a recommendation to a large readership.

        But that’s why it’s mega important to be more than just any descriptive opinion. I don’t think saying the tour show being worse than other shows is necessarily arbitrary as long as you properly justify it.

        Having said that I find the criticism that tour shows are rarely better than other productions to be reflective of inherent biases and overly high expectations of footlights shows – their reputation is a double edged sword. It’s also the nature of the tour show: Perfect Strangers was not amazingly received originally, but people kinda forget that these are students in their finals slowly building towards a 3 month international tour and both that and Canada were well received by their return run.

        For example I think the fact Spleen was more enjoyable to you is a testament of how good the writers and performers of Spleen are, and no doubt at least some will make up the tour show of 2015.

        The truth is that you probably think Footlights shows are not often better than other productions because you don’t go to see bad comedy shows. There have been plenty in Cambridge (as well as at every other university) and it’s not until you see them that you realise how hard it is to actually make a good sketch show.

        That’s how Footlights is always going to be. A lot of people will always enjoy Footlights as they expected. A lot of people will continually only ever go see the big shows, expect something amazing, be disappointed. But few people will truly realise their justification actually lies in the the shows they don’t even see.

  • Part of the problem

    is that there’s a very hazy definition of what actually makes someone a Footlight:

    – someone on the committee?

    – someone on the Footlights Tour?

    – someone in any Footlights show? Including the panto, which is (probably) more of a CUADC thing anyway?

    – someone who’s been in any smoker?

    – someone who’s been on the ADC stage and was a bit funny once?

    People always throw this phrase ‘the Footlights’ around without a blind idea who it is they’re referring to…

    • footies

      It’s someone on the committee, otherwise they “performed with the Footlights!

      • If this is the case

        I don’t think any of the last couple of Spring Revues have been Footlights. Despite being the Footlights Spring Revue.

        And I think two of the three writers of this year’s pantomime are the only link to the Footlights: Ben Pope and Ryan Ammar. In a team of well over 50.

        • Funding

          The Footlights Spring Revue is so called because it is funded by the Footlights. It doesn’t have to have any committee members involved; people apply with their show to the committee to be funded as the Spring Revue and the committee choose the best show. The same is true for the Tour Show – Emma Powell of Perfect Strangers was never a Footlight, nor were any of the tour managers in recent years (because yes, they, too should be given credit) – nor was Celine Lowenthal, director of Canada.

          And to, once again, reiterate a tired point, the Pantomime is the “CUADC/Footlights Pantomime”, so called because most of the budget comes from CUADC. And ALL of the cast and crew were members of the CUADC. It is mostly a CUADC show with the Footlights name attached. A quick look at the panto CamDram reveals that Sam Rayner, Ben Pope, Ryan Ammar, Emma Powell, Leo Cairns, Johann Hendrik Kamper, Tim Palmer, Emily Burns, and James Hutchings (forgive me if I’ve missed any) are all current or ex- committee members of either the CUADC or Footlights. Pretty good representation there.

      • tell that

        to Alex Aitken, who currently lists his job as “Musical Director at Cambridge Footlights”.

  • A Sensitive Scholar

    Phil Wang wasn’t funny. I have no idea how he won Chortle and the clip posted in the article is a fantastic example of how absolutely awful (and poorly executed) his material is. I imagine that the decline of the Footlights has a lot to do with the emphasis on sketch comedy being squeezed to make room for solo stand-up acts who generally aren’t as consistent, largely because British people simply do not “get it”.

  • JOMS MORAN

    I WILL ONLY SAY THIS ONCE MORE…LEAVE THE FOOTLIGHTS OUT OF THIS

  • Greg Hill

    The fact that I built a gym with my bare hands induces more laughter, as a mean average, than most Footlights productions.