Want my job? with Libby Purves - radio presenter and journalist

Theatre reviewer, radio presenter, and former columnist at The Times, Libby Purves has had a great career so far!

Want my job? with Libby Purves - radio presenter and journalist

You have worked in a range of fields, from radio presenting to writing novels and books on childcare to theatre criticism. How would you describe your current job titles, and what do your jobs involve?

I am a Radio 4 talk show presenter - MIDWEEK, Wednesdays, four guests from all sorts of fields of endeavour and often from the arts. I have been doing it for 30 years, amazingly. I also do some other programmes, documentaries etc, for radio.

As a journalist I am a Times columnist and book reviewer and feature writer. Since I ceased as their Chief Theatre Editor, I review plays on my own independent website, theatrecat.com, in the same style and length as broadsheet newspaper reviews.

What's great about the work you do?

It is varied, brings me in contact with several different forms of creativity, and provides me with ideas and directions for my own work (I have written twelve novels and various non-fiction books, and am working on one about the experience of theatre criticism). As a critic I get to see the important plays and many fringe ones, and have to concentrate on them in order to write cogent reviews and accounts; as an interviewer I have to read around the subject.

What are the bits you don't like or find challenging? Is it difficult to balance the different types of jobs you do?

Not really. Time is always a problem, and sometimes you need to switch off and turn down commissions in order to get your own thoughts into shape. I find it hard sometimes to work out how to sew together very diverse guests, in a live radio show, into a coherent whole without it feeling jerky or anticlimactic: and sometimes on air there is real hard work in drawing people out and making them feel safe to talk frankly, given the short time constraints.

You created the theatre review website theatrecat.com. What are the benefits and drawbacks of publishing content online?

The drawback of course is that it is unpaid - so far - and that any 'marketing' has to be done by the individual writer, on Twitter and in other forums. If you work for a newspaper they do all the selling, you just write!

On the other hand there is a great freedom in the online world. It is a dangerous freedom, because the temptation is great, there being no space constraints, to ramble on and on and on as many bloggers do and not edit yourself. There is also a temptation to fill the site with videos, pictures and pop up ads which are distracting and take ages to load on a poor phone signal. So I keep my reviews well under 600 words, edit as carefully as if in a newspaper, and try to keep the site 'clean'.

What are the highlights of your career to date?

I used to enjoy doing all-night election programmes when I was a Today presenter; I loved doing that programme live from Beijing; but really, highlights happen all the time, and I wouldn't go back to any earlier phase than the one I am in. To be honest, some evenings in the theatre - fringe or mainstream - are heady highlights in themselves, as is the fact that you can then write about it and think about it and try to explain how great it was...

Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?

It was not easy coming back to work after my son's death. But I knew that he would have been horrified to think that his going had ruined anyone's life, least of all his mother's. So I made the effort. And editing his writings in the book THE SILENCE AT THE SONG'S END was fascinating and humbling, and getting them made into a radio 4 play one of the things I am most proud of.

How did you get into working in the arts, and have you always worked in this sector?

I was a general reporter and broadcaster on radio, and a freelance writer, and a novelist. And graudally, my interest in theatre arts sort of took over. But I still do other work. It is important not to get trapped in an arts ghetto and only pay attention to fictions...the real world has to be a big part of your life too, personally and politically and geographically.

Do you have any advice for young people interested in working in the areas you have?

Write. Practice. Edit yourself, cut out words that aren't doing any serious work. Don't be pretentious, don't pretend you 'get' something when you don't. Some emperors have no clothes on at all!

And don't expect work in arts journalism to make you much money. You'll need something else too, unless you're very very very lucky...

And try to create something original yourself, or perform yourself. It's the best way of understanding how difficult and rewarding it is, when you criticize the work of others.


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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