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The pain and the glory of the one-star review
Plus: the curse of being funny on Twitter, and the best thread of the year
Every day and night on the arts desk of the Telegraph, verdicts across film, music, theatre and art come pinging into our inboxes from our various critics. They consist of a star rating followed by a pithy, often very funny, one-line summary – unfiltered thoughts sent blearily on a bus after curtains close, sometimes too blunt, too succinct, to ever make it into the review. A grumpy late-night verdict will often find itself hoisted come morning, after a good night’s sleep and a restorative tea.
Mostly, they are three and four stars. Every editor hates a three star, it means the headline will be beige, and it’s harder to sell at conference: so is the thing good or is it bad?
It genuinely is good, it’s a recommendation, a solid accomplishment. Nevertheless, artists and authors will often view a three-star review of their work as the most insulting of them all. Some will assume it suggests ambivalence, a giant meh, or worse, perhaps pity – a weak critic too nice to go lower.
As the recipient of a three-star, there’s not much fun to be had with it. You can’t boast about it, but neither can it enrage you. You can’t whip your offence into something funny on Twitter, put the most incendiary line in your bio or print it on a T-Shirt. You can’t accuse a critic of being an egregious snoot, an immutable arse or having a personal prejudice. A three-star is infuriatingly sensible, it won’t lose its shape no matter how much you kick it.
When it comes to music, ratings don’t mean much to me. As I’ve written about here before, music journalists skew young, are terrified of offending their favourite artists and being desiccated by protective fandoms, and by that logic five stars should often be three, four stars two, and three stars one. I don’t say that in a superior way, I am equally petrified, and when I saw Pitchfork had given Ed Sheeran a mere 3.8 the other week (the only publication that uses a 10 star and decimal point rating), I felt a mild rush from the audacity.
When it comes to the other arts, I take ratings more seriously. Actors, writers and directors don’t have fandoms in the same way artists do, and so for journalists the stakes can appear much lower, their opinions can be braver. Perhaps there is something less personal too, in weathering a bad review among a cast of actors, or between a director and writer, whereas the musical artist tends to bear the brunt on their own. So does the author, but the only authors with the power of a fandom behind them are fantasy ones, and, having long-been condescended by the literary media while their sales rocket, they probably couldn’t give a flying saucer what journalists think of them anyway.
On the rare occasion a two-star verdict hurtles into our inboxes, the office will titter excitedly. A one-star will prompt a crowding around a desk, with someone gleefully reading out the best lines, the headline becoming a collective work of art. This week, the review in question was my colleague Robbie Collin’s of The Idol, the lurid looking new HBO show starring Lily Rose Depp as a pop star gone bad, billed as from “the twisted minds” of Sam Levinson (Euphoria) and The Weeknd. (It was controversial before it even saw the light of day, which I previously wrote about here.) In one of our best performing Culture pieces of the week, Robbie described the show as “colossally gormless”, “fatuously graphic” and containing “one of the worst pieces of dialogue of the year” – which obviously became the headline. (There’s also a very funny bit in which he tries to quote some of the most explicit dialogue all the while catering to delicate Telegraph reader sensibilities, by replacing body parts with vegetables.)
Only twice have I seen zero stars, when my colleague Tim Robey filed a wickedly funny review of the “sinister hellscape” Cats – his first zero star review since 2010’s Old Dogs. And in fact it was such a rarity for the Telegraph that we were left stumped on what to do with the formatting, forced to remove the usual blue stars to write out ‘zero stars’, instead. But the review went viral and the Culture desk lived off Cats content for a week – including a piece about my own scarring experience of the film my editor proceeded to give a grotesquely brilliant headline that still haunts me.
Thanks to these reviews, which magazines published cackling round-ups of, one title calling them “more entertaining than the actual film”, Cats probably had twice the publicity it hoped for. Interestingly however, it still bombed at the box office – I would have thought that audiences might have bought tickets out of reviled intrigue alone.
And that’s the funny thing about excruciatingly bad reviews, they are often the reason you end up watching something in the first place. Already on our Idol review there are comments from readers saying they can’t wait to see it. “Anything hated this much by critics, must be worth a watch,” reads one. “Sounds amazing - when and where can I watch it?” reads another. Maybe they’re just being facetious, but the bad press has certainly worked its magic on me. Unlike those shrugging three-stars, anything that provokes such intense reaction and prompts cultural conversation worldwide is surely worth seeing. With a two-or-below star rating there is always the possibility you will wildly disagree with the critic, which is all part of the fun — depressingly, I rarely find fault with a three star. Less fun, however, is when you spend an hour beached upon the sofa after work, TV remote in hand, flicking between a five-star review of a show in one newspaper and a two-star in another, trying to figure out which one is most likely to be right, and before you know it it’s bed-time and you’ve achieved nothing with your life.
Of course some of the most critically lampooned films ended up gaining cult audiences – from Show Girls to Fight Club – because it’s always appealing to defend something the mainstream (initially) hates. And we all know there is almost no correlation between what storms the box office and critical praise – most recent examples being Super Mario Bros (one star from Robbie, box office success) and Babylon (five stars from Robbie, box office dud).
Rounding off with a little bit of “research”, I asked Robbie whether it was indeed fair to assume he didn’t get the same grief that music journalists do. He told me that it generally, yes, but depends on the audience – and he will always set his Instagram to private ahead of a one-star review (as it is now, post Idol) because people have trawled through leaving unpleasant comments in the past, as they did for Avatar 2 and Jojo Rabbit. Avatar surprised him, “who would have thought Avatar would have toxic fans?”, but Jojo Rabbit made more sense: “I suspect because its director Taika Waititi’s earlier work inspires that same kind of hyper-defensive ‘he really understands me!’ adoration among his younger and/or thicker followers. (And that’s hardly his fault: I also enjoyed some of those earlier films very much.)”.
I’ve often heard from film and theatre critics that they are more likely to receive a ‘disappointed’ private letter or email than a publicly shaming social media post, perhaps because film and theatre directors tend to be a generation or two ahead of your average music star. Tim, who faced the most fan harassment for his two star Alita: Battle Angel review, told me that the director of Kevin and Perry Go Large called him up after he mentioned it negatively in his Shawn of the Dead review (“the annals of British film comedy are littered with the corpses of stillborn crossovers from TV”) to tell him the film had actually done very well at the box office, thank you very much, while the film’s director Harry Enfield sent him a ‘sore’ letter about how well the royalties had treated him.
Robbie has received fewer missives than other critics he knows, but “there’s at least one producer who loathes me after my one-star review of their British film apparently single-handedly scuppered their US distribution deal. And only a few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to a director’s fuming social media post about a one-star review I’d given them more than a decade back.”
How does it affect him? “Obviously it still stings, which I hope it goes without saying I take no pleasure in. But that’s all part of the job: if you don’t like something you don’t like it, so you have to explain why and then worry about clearing up the mess afterwards.” Amen to that.
This week in links
I’ve been reading this Slate piece comparing Brandon Taylor's ‘humourless’ new book The Late Americans with his ‘lively’ Twitter feed, with the journalist puzzled over why they don’t match up. It’s a strange criticism: I don't think any writer should have to use the same voice across all mediums. My Substack voice, for instance, is often quite different to the one I use for the Telegraph, to suit a different demographic. That said, my Substack voice also changes depending on the subject. And while I would say I’m pretty opinionated on here, my Twitter is a cautious wasteland, punctuated by the odd boring bit of self-promo or a shy little retweet. On several occasions as an editor, I've commissioned someone because I've found them brilliantly sharp and entertaining on Twitter, only to find their piece boring and flat. The lesson is, then: don't judge a writer by their Twitter feed, for better or for worse.
Also a mad Vice story about trepanning, a process by which you drill a hole into your head to get more oxygen in the brain, to give you a high. I only learned about it the other week while watching an episode of the new Dead Ringers, but it dates back to 7-10,000 years ago, used for spiritual and medical reasons. Joe Mellon – who was interviewed by Vice in 2016 but they've just re-shared the piece on Instagram – trepanned his own skull (with a few gruesome botched first attempts) and believes every human should have the procedure done at birth, by not sealing off the fontanelle. Mellon describes how his third, successful, attempt with a hand-drill has gave him a "a lightness...like a weight had been lifted off me". Read it here and shudder.
And, Matthew D'Ancona’s thoughtful essay in the New European, in which he declares Succession the best TV show of all time. I'm weighing it up with Breaking Bad, but I think he might be right. I also enjoyed him describing Brian Cox as " a man capable of turning a cardigan into an instrument of menace."
More Succession, I am obsessed with Kieran Culkin revealing to Taika Waititi that he tries to memorise the crew list before a shoot, because he once read that Saint Goldblum does this so that he can address every crew member by name. Every year I hear yet another story about angelic Jeff and every year I feel utterly terrified that one day I will wake up and he will have been accused of something heinous on Twitter and it will all be over. In the meantime however, allow me to share, for the millionth time, this piece about when I stalked him at Glastonbury.
I can’t stop thinking about this enormously entertaining thread from a Taylor Swift fan who can no longer in good conscience go to a Taylor Swift concert because Swift is dating ‘problematic white man’ Matty Healey. That said she is still going, because she has such good seats, but wants ‘marginalised Swift fans’ to understand ‘the tension of the ticket I have’.
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