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Uncovering first act in the life of an extraordinary theatre critic

Michael Church recalls his friend, the esteemed John Peter

15 July, 2021 — By Michael Church

John Peter defected to the West, aged 18, in 1956, later becoming chief theatre critic of The Sunday Times

AS a student I sometimes used to mug up for my weekly essay in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. And every time I went, I noticed another student always there. He would be sitting as still as a statue, gaze fixed firmly on his book; nothing ever disturbed his concentration, which he kept up hour after hour, week after week.

Five years later I ran into him at a party in London: John Peter, a live-wire Hungarian who had defected to the West in 1956. I had become a vociferously radical schoolteacher, and he suggested that I might enjoy working at The Times Educational Supplement, where he was employed. I got a job there, and after a couple of years found myself editing the arts pages, for which he was the theatre critic.

He was funny, a fine mimic, and a brilliant writer, exceptionally quick to deliver his copy. Nothing seemed to puncture his sunny mood, apart from one event which struck me as significant. We were watching an experimental play in a little downtown cellar, and the noise from over-amplified bass drums was thunderous: John became panicky and had to get out, saying darkly that it brought back memories. Of Budapest? Yes, he said, but then clammed up.

It was no surprise when he moved on to greater things: as chief theatre critic of The Sunday Times he became one of the most respected voices in the business. He also made his mark in other ways, co-launching the Ian Charleson Awards for young actors which have given many budding stars a boost, including Dominic West, Geraldine James, Toby Stephens, Jude Law, Helen McCrory, Ben Whishaw, and Tom Hiddleston.

It was tragic that John, who lived for many happy years at the Angel, and whose parties were always thronged with writers and thespians, should finally succumb to dementia. But it was heart-warming that he should have ended his days in the bosom of the profession he loved, at the Denville Hall home for retired actors. He died in July last year, aged 81.

How I Became an Englishman answers all the questions I had wanted to ask about his life before 1956, but hadn’t had the nerve to. I now feel sad that I hadn’t pierced that carapace: to read this book, which his wife Judith Burnley helped him set down on paper, is to follow a story shot through with both terrible pathos and extraordinary courage. He was my good and caring friend but, like almost everyone else of his acquaintance, I only knew a bit of him.

This is an exceptionally short book, but it feels written in letters of fire. As John himself puts it, he was until two the pam­pered baby of a wealthy and much-respected family. But then his flam­boyantly theatrical mother suddenly decided to seek adventure by absconding with him: the agreement reached was that when John – originally Janos – was six, he would be returned to his father and grandparents.

But there was a war on, and they were Jews. Born in 1938, John was in the thick of it, always on the move with his mother, he attending school after school, and she forced to survive by manual labour.

John had adored his father Andras, an art historian, and the tragedy of his life was that he never saw him again. In 1944 Andras was rounded up in Budapest together with hundreds of other Jews, and all were marched down some steps to the Chain Bridge over the Danube, shot, and their bodies pushed into the river.

John never recovered from the knowledge of this horror, and for many years never even believed it.

“Every time I go to Budapest, I go down those steps and stand by the river’s edge where he was pushed in,” he says. “But I have never been able to make myself walk across the Chain Bridge.”

For many years he dreamed Andras was still alive: “It is hard to bear, this dream, this undying hope. Have I failed him? Perhaps he’s still waiting for me, as I am waiting, still, for him.”

John describes his astonished infant discovery that his family and their friends were called Jews, and that he himself was one of these creatures. And he was sometimes in great danger as the Nazi extermination policy developed. On one occasion he was left by his mother in a convent, but the Mother Superior, who warmed to him, sent him out to stay with some friends; that same night the convent was raided by the Nazis, and all the children were taken away and killed.

There is too much fascinating detail in this book for a review to do it justice, as John describes his zig-zag progress from school to school, and his conversion first to Stalinism and then to democratic revolution.

In the Uprising itself, inspired by a fiery production of Richard III, he was at the forefront of the demonstrations, and consequently had to flee the country. The tale of his defection – at one point hidden with his mother in a hay wagon, with soldiers prodding it with bayonets to check no humans were escaping across the border – is gripping; the only belonging he took with him of any significance was his father’s two-volume study of Hungarian art.

The story of his induction into Oxford life – initially as a below-stairs servant at the Jesuit college, Campion Hall – is touching in its single-minded purposefulness.

When John came over at 18 he had hardly any English, but by reading The Times every day he brought himself to a point where in his early 20s he could compete as a writer with the brightest young Oxonians, and come off best. Which is where we began…

How I Became an Englishman. By John Peter, as told to Judith Burnley. Salamander Street, £7.99

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