Charles Spencer

Mammoth enterprises

Mammoth enterprises

Next month it will be five years since the death of my former boss, Peter Hepple, and I still miss the man who saved my career and very possibly my sanity.

Peter was for 20 years, from 1972–92, the editor of the Stage newspaper, often affectionately known as the actors’ Bible. But he contributed to it for more than half a century. His first article appeared in 1950, a review of the long-forgotten male impersonator Ella Shields who was topping the bill at the Queen’s Theatre, Poplar. His last, a piece on stage psychics, appeared posthumously in the week of his death.

Peter would review almost anything that moved, from strippers to Strindberg, from high opera at Covent Garden to cheesy tribute bands in working men’s clubs. He respected anyone who was capable of entertaining an audience, and his notices combined discrimination and knowledge with a complete absence of malice or cheap shots.

I arrived at the Stage in 1984 after five punishing years as arts reporter and third-string theatre critic on the Evening Standard. At 29 I was a burnt-out Fleet Street wreck. Two years earlier I had run away from the job, unable to face the stress of interviewing that logorrhoeic polymath, Jonathan Miller. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I could face interviewing him now. Doing a vanishing act to Dawlish, where I sat in a deckchair for several days, reading thrillers and watching pensioners playing bowls struck me as an entirely sensible option.

I thought the Standard would sack me when I got back, but they didn’t. Instead, I attended a psychiatric day hospital for several weeks before going back to work. But a couple of years later the stress again became unbearable and I quit the job. I assumed I’d have to become a minicab driver to pay the mortgage.

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