THE BACK PAGES

Courting trouble with misblurbs

Misquote a critic to sell more tickets or books, and you could face jail time in Britain

KATE LUNAU June 11 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Courting trouble with misblurbs

Misquote a critic to sell more tickets or books, and you could face jail time in Britain

KATE LUNAU June 11 2007

Courting trouble with misblurbs

stage

Misquote a critic to sell more tickets or books, and you could face jail time in Britain

KATE LUNAU

London theatre producers are known for a knack for spinning straw into gold, and more than one has extracted quotes from a critic’s lukewarm review to tempt the public to their shows. Ian Shuttleworth, a theatre critic for the Financial Times in London, pointed to a recent review penned by critic Kieron Quirke for a London magazine. “It is both irresistible and true to say that St. George and the Dragon drags on,” it read. “And lo and behold,” Shuttleworth said. “In the ad, it became, ‘Irresistible.’ It’s been an issue for a while. But it only really became a matter for serious tussling in the last few years.”

Soon promoters who take liberties with critics’ reviews could face legal action—maybe even jail time—under a new European Union directive coming into force in Britain by April 2008. The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive is aimed at protecting consumers from “sharp” practices in advertising, said Simon Gorham, a litigator at British law firm Boodle Hatfield. While the directive isn’t specifically designed to keep theatre producers in line, “it is interesting from an arts perspective,” Gorham said, “because it will impact those who misquote critics to sell tickets.”

To be deemed unfair, an advertisement must fall short of a reasonable standard of care, and it must also be shown to have influenced consumer behaviour in some way. Severe offences could land the guilty party behind bars—“but we won’t know what a serious breach is until there’s a test case brought before the courts,” Gorham said.

In the meantime, what exists between London’s critics and producers is a “gentlemen’s agreement,” said Alistair Smith, news editor at London weekly The Stage, explaining that

producers will sometimes call up critics and ask permission to use an edited version of a quote in publicity material. “Most producers are very honest, but some push as far as they can,” Smith said.

He gave the example of another London theatre critic who wrote of Saturday Night Fever: “if it’s an all-out retro romp you want, this only fitfully delivers,” a line that was whittled down to “an all-out retro romp” in ads for the show.

The concern isn’t unique to London. Perhaps the most notorious example comes from New York City, where producer David Merrick thumbed through the phone book until he found seven people with the same names as prominent theatre critics, and convinced them to give rave reviews of his panned 1961 show Subways are for Sleeping.

Such slight of hand is not unique to theatre, either—according to Canadian author and critic George Murray, when it comes to promoting books, “it seems to be industry standard to play a little fast and loose with the newspaper blurb.” Murray has had at least one of his own reviews sliced and diced, without added ellipses to show the text had been changed, and used to advertise a novel he critiqued. “The review is dead and gone at the end of the day. Pull quotes live forever,” he said.

When Nathan Whitlock, now review editor at Quill & Quire, first started writing book reviews, he sometimes purposely penned them in a way that nothing could be extracted as a pull quote. “You just sort of avoid an entirely positive sentence,” said Whitlock. “You can get really petty about it.”

And who could forget the bizarre case of David Manning, a movie critic Sony admitted to inventing back in 2001? It was Manning who dubbed Heath Ledger “This year’s hottest new star” in publicity material for the film A Knight’s Tale, and Manning who enthusiastically proclaimed Rob Schneider’s The Animal “Another winner! ” Sony later agreed to pay a settlement of US$1.5 million ($5 each to fans who saw the films in the U.S.).

Back in London, Shuttleworth said critics feel that being taken out of context is a “lowlevel annoyance, but we don’t go around with the sense it’s the constant bane of our lives.” The Critics’ Circle, an association that represents British critics, only gets about five complaints from individual critics on the matter each year, said Aleks Sierz, honorary secretary of the drama section. “In the catalogue of human depravity, this doesn’t rank very high,” he acknowledged.

So will the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive have any effect on the city’s more brassy producers? “My feeling is that it will lead to several months of caution,” Shuttleworth said, “after which it will be just like the tides reclaiming the mud flats.” M