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John Berger as you’ve never heard him before

17 March 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Cameos, for art critics, tend to be carved portraits on an oval background. Not so for John Berger. In what surely ranks as one of the revelations of the century, a Twitter user this pointed out this week that the late, great writer delivered a couple of lines in 1999 as East End gangster Albert Crisp in Grand Theft Auto: London 1969, an expansion pack of the computer game first released in 1997. It seems that Berger happened to be in the recording studio when software developer Rockstar Games was casting around for a voice actor. ‘Pretty little thing ain’tcha?’, he tells the player’s character in a quite stonkingly terrible Cockney accent (see below, from 47 seconds).

All of which has inspired Rakewell to do a bit of casting around of his own, in search of other surprising cameos by cultural critics and theorists. Susan Sontag has a walk-on part in Le bel âge (1960; dir. Pierre Kast) – a film which, appropriately enough, is set in a Parisian art-book shop with a pronounced focus on erotica.

And who could forget the philosopher Marshall McLuhan (‘the medium is the message’) getting comprehensively up Woody Allen’s nose in Annie Hall?


But perhaps the most pleasing bit-part to have been played by an art critic involves Berger’s great rival, David Sylvester. For some years, the great champion of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti tried his hand as a sports journalist, covering football and cricket on odd weekends for the Observer. It was, he later reflected, the ‘most testing literary exercise I have ever undergone’. But Rakewell is delighted he persevered, so that readers today can unearth such titles as ‘Southend Unlucky’, ‘Preston Tactics Fail’ and ‘Queer Goal Upsets Birmingham’ among his collected works.

Football, as it happens, was among many things that the two disagreed on; Berger believed in a marriage of art and football, while Sylvester thought that sport was a separate ‘aesthetic category’. What a pity they’re not both still around today, or the BBC might have found an elegant solution last weekend to both the moribund present state of their arts programming and the apostasy of Gary Lineker, by having them slug it out on Match of the Day.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.