With more TV channels then there are bacteria on a lab technician’s wellington boot, and with social media weaponising opinions en masse, these days everyone is a critic. But as far as British TV audiences in the 70s, 80s and 90s were concerned, there was only really one film critic, Barry Norman CBE, who has sadly passed away this weekend at the age of 83.
Between 1971 and 1998, Norman’s was the positive verdict every studio wanted on their film poster. With a sprightly, conversational style that sounded like audible handwriting, and a dependable selection of comfortable jumpers to hand, Barry Norman was the nation’s film critic: our Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert rolled into one package.
Coming up through the ranks the old fashioned way, Norman ended up at the BBC via early work as a jobbing journalist and a film critic for various national newspapers. He was one of the first presenters of the BBC’s new ‘Film’ programme in 1971 and became its main host a year later.
His timing was astute: he was on television just in time to be able to interview his idols from Hollywood’s Golden Age (though John Wayne nearly punched him in the face for his troubles). By the early 1990s, Norman himself was the star and was able to secure much-envied exclusive one-on-one interviews with stars like Warren Beatty, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Martin Scorsese and Michelle Pfeiffer, with whom Norman had to work hard to make it look like he wasn’t falling madly in love.
If the simple format of one person in a chair talking to camera feels a little dated; not something you often see these days, it isn’t because it became desperately old fashioned – it’s because barely anyone could master it like Barry Norman. He did it simply by being himself. Week after week, millions of us turned to him like a dependable, notably erudite friend for his highly informed advice and he dispensed it with a sense of fairness and fun.
As a teenager, and as the only member of my household able to set the video timer, his Film shows were a weekly-taped must-have. At a time when it was customary to circle upcoming highlights in the Christmas Radio Times, for me Barry Norman’s Films of The Year was THE major televisual event of the festive season. (I also remain grateful to him for introducing me to the word ‘Toothsome’ when describing Daphne Zuniga in The Fly II.)
As well as a film critic, Norman was a novelist and a late-vintage pickled onion baron (and was famously one of Morecambe & Wise’s dancing partners in their ‘Ain’t Nothing Like a Dame’ musical number). However, he will always be remembered as The Nation’s Film Critic, one with the best theme tune on TV. 19 years after he vacated it, no one has ever really filled his seat.
Click here to read an exclusive HeyUGuys interview with the great man.