Lorne Jackson talks to arts critic Terry Grimley about a stellar career that was scripted almost by chance.
Many ambitious youths hanker after a career in journalism.
The curious thing about Terry Grimley is that he never wanted to be a journalist – even as a kid.
It’s curious because that’s what he spent his life doing. And – curiouser and curiouser – he ended up being one of the best to have graced the pages of the Birmingham Post.
Terry didn’t go looking for the work. But he quickly got the knack of being a hack, rising to the lofty position of Arts Editor with the Post, before retiring earlier this year.
Because of his contribution to arts reporting in the city, the Birmingham Rep Theatre has awarded Terry a special accolade.
A seat with his name on it.
“It’s a lovely thing,” Terry smiles. “Though strange to be awarded this for my journalism. Because I must be one of the few people who became a journalist without ever wanting to become a journalist. I sort of got dragged into it through the back door.”
He may never have had an interest in the inky-finger profession, but Terry always had a passion for the arts.
After leaving school in Birmingham, he moved to Nottingham to study for a degree in Fine Arts.
The course was a mixture of practical art and the study of art history.
“At first I did want to be an artist, which was very unrealistic. Being an artist generally is very unrealistic. In my case, I’d been to a very conservative grammar school, where there was little awareness of the contemporary art scene.
“So it was quite a culture shock to arrive at art school.
‘‘Other people were much more up to the game, and they instantly started doing what was then the fashionable style.”
Many of the instructors were well-known artists, with no real passion for teaching.
“When I say there were people ‘teaching’ there, it sounds wrong,” chuckles Terry. “Really, they were receiving payment to be on the premises. It was a very loose set-up.”
One teacher did impress him during a particular lecture.
“I’ve no idea what he said, but I was impressed by the fact that he was wearing a black PVC coat, a scarf, and that he ended his lecture by playing a track from the second Love album. I thought that was brilliant!”
After leaving further education, Terry drifted back to Birmingham with a vague notion of either teaching art history or curating in museums.
“I found the idea of buying paintings with other people’s money attractive. Actually, I still find that attractive.”
This was during the seventies, and the young graduate was spending much of his time at the Birmingham Arts Lab.
“I was there for about a year or so. It was kind of a cultural Crewe Junction, because a lot of connections were made at the Arts Lab.
“The seventies period was really quite depressing. It had that hung-over feel. But the Arts Lab was an oasis from all of that, and it was packed with creative odd bods.”
In the Arts Lab, Terry met a man who would have a huge impact on his life.
Anthony Everitt, the Birmingham Post Arts Editor of the time.
Everitt gave Terry freelance assignments as an art critic. Eventually Everitt persuaded his superiors at the paper that he needed an assistant.
Terry had found a vocation. Though it’s probably more accurate to say a vocation had found him.
“I remember thinking at the time that this would be an interesting thing to do for a couple of years, then I’ll go off and do something else.
“I had a very nice, naïve idea that being a journalist would be a very good basis for going off in other directions. That didn’t prove to be the case.”
In the subsequent years, Terry wrote on all manner of subjects.
There was a lengthy period as film critic. He also wrote about pop music, “before I became completely ignorant about what was happening”.
His passion for classical musical was put to good use. And, of course, the Fine Art graduate wrote fine articles on his old Uni topic, too. Then there was theatre.
Terry quickly became a champion of the Rep. “Each time an artistic director departed, there was this thing of, ‘Oh, of course, Jones was terrible. But Bloggs is going to be marvellous!’
“But my impression was that over the whole spectrum of the years – whether it was Jones in charge, or Bloggs – it was pretty similar, in the sense that the range of quality was enormous. During each regime there were some things that were really outstanding and some things that were really dire.”
What productions does he remember with affection?
“There was the first play by David Mamet that I saw, American Buffalo. That was stunning. There was this kind of paradox, in that you had these hopeless petty crooks whose inarticulacies by some kind of alchemy became a kind of poetry. And that was just wonderful.
“There was another thing, which was a bit of hokum. Though recently I’ve been thinking of it with quite a lot of nostalgia. It’s the kind of thing the Rep probably wouldn’t do now. It was a Christmas production of The Woman In Black that was put on in the Studio.
“It’s a ghost story, of course. And I remember being absolutely bloody terrified.
“Yet it was just two actors and dry ice.”
The play that had the greatest affect on Terry was Frozen, by Bryony Lavery.
It tells the story of the disappearance and murder of a 10-year-old girl, Rhona. The play follows Rhona’s mother and killer over the years that follow, struggling with emotional paralysis and the possibility of forgiveness.
“There is a scene in the play that if you see it, you will never forget it, where the mother holds her daughter’s skull in her hands.
“And I can’t describe the feeling I had being in the theatre, watching it. The emotional impact of that production was just extraordinary. It was horrible and beautiful at the same time. And I thought, ‘I can’t believe theatre can do this.’
“In all my years of seeing theatre, I’ve never had an experience quite like it. As a parent, I feel very emotionally involved in that kind of thing. I would not have chosen to see that play had I not been covering it professionally.
"But because I had to go, I had an experience like very few I’ve had in the arts.”
Terry had other moving experiences at the Rep. Though some involved a very different sort of moving. As in moving out of his seat, through the door, then as far away from the theatre as his legs could take him.
“Possibly the most notorious thing put on during my tenure was the famous UB40 musical. What were they thinking? It was absolutely dreadful, to a heroic degree. It was called a UB40 Musical, though any involvement from the band was minimal.
“Somebody else reviewed that show, but I went along anyway, out of a sense of curiosity. One of the most bizarre things in it was this woman who was meant to be drunk. She sang Red, Red Wine boozed up, waving a wine bottle. That was unforgettable.
“I just stared in disbelief. This particular evening represented an acute dilemma. There’s only a select few shows that I’ve ever left. And I never leave when I’m reviewing.
“Anyway, it got to the interval, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got the message about this. But is it such a benchmark of awfulness that I really should suffer the entire thing?’ I knew the second half featured the legendary S&M scene, which gave me pause for thought.
“So I was standing in the foyer of The Rep, and it just happened that it was a sunny evening. Feeling guilty, but also feeling that life was too short, I ran into the sunlight.”
Overall, Terry has had pleasurable experiences at The Rep.
Now he has moved on to fresh pastures. The theatre is doing likewise. Next year the company will begin a two-year adventure performing at different venues across the city. The change of scenery coming as a result of the REP’s integration in the new Library of Birmingham.
“I’m sure standards will be maintained,” says Terry. “I have a broad idea what I think The Rep should do. It should be like the National Theatre. It has a responsibility to present a cross-section of world theatre in terms of the classics and new work.
“Getting that blend is obviously the challenge. Yet that’s broadly what has been achieved while I’ve been covering The Rep. It is an essential part of Birmingham’s cultural scene.”