Milton Shulman: former Evening Standard theatre critic

Late one Friday evening the phone rang in Milton Shulman’s flat in Eaton Square. He picked up the phone. “You’ll be dead tonight,” a man said and hung up.

Milton liked to tell the story. He walked to the police station and told the young police constable behind the desk. “Have you any enemies?” asked the constable. “Legion,” said Milton. “I am a theatre critic.”

He certainly was. In many Londoners’ eyes he was the theatre critic. For 38 years, he went to the theatre three, four, five nights a week on behalf of the Evening Standard.

“Seven thousand first nights,” he would say, laying it on a bit.

In a long life, he had other careers – most of them successful. He had his moment as a budding crooner, read law in Canada, was duly called to the bar and arrived in London with the Canadian Army. He was in France soon after D-Day and in September 1945, the war over, he had the most incredible break. In a series of single prison cells sat key figures of the German high command – one fieldmarshal, 23 generals and two colonels were waiting to give the allies their accounts of the war. Captain Shulman interviewed them all. The result was his best-selling book, Defeat in the West, and because Lord Beaverbrook read it, a job on the Evening Standard.

The paper’s new recruit covered a jitterbugging contest, interviewed Chico Marx, Joe Louis and Mae West, did a series on pretty girls he picked up on the Central Line and before long, to his surprise, found himself the Evening Standard’s film critic.

“What do you know about films?” barked Lord Beaverbrook, who had summoned him to his penthouse.

“Not much,” said Milton “Just the man we want,” said Beaverbrook.

Shulman turned out to be a critical film critic – so critical that just about the entire film industry united to withdraw all its advertising. It was worth £250,000 a year. “IN NO CIRCUMSTANCES WILL THE NEWSPAPERS YIELD TO ANY FORM OF COERCION,” cabled Lord Beaverbook and in the end the crisis solved itself.

Ken Tynan, the Standard’s highlystrung young theatre critic, threatened to sue his own paper for libel and was fired. Milton took over.

When at last he was replaced by Nicholas de Jong and given a weekly column on the arts instead, he gave as his opinion that in 38 years he had never seen a new great play.

Out of the theatre he had friends galore, relished good restaurants and good wine, bought good pictures, followed the horses, played excellent tennis. Above all he saw his brilliant family blossom. His wife, Drusilla Beyfus, is a distinguished journalist herself of course, his son Jason is an art director, one of his daughters, Alexandra is editor of British Vogue and her sister Nicola reviews books as well as being the Marchioness of Normanby and the mother of three small children.

He has also left behind a multitude of Goldberg jokes, told well and often in the Canadian accent he never lost.

“Mrs Goldberg put an ad in the paper: ‘Goldberg dead.’ ‘For the same price you can have another three words,’ said the girl. ‘Volvo for sale,’ said Mrs Goldberg.”

Angus McGill

Angus McGill

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