For the better part of three decades, cinema lovers tuned in to watch Barry Norman report on forthcoming features, chat with the Hollywood elite and cast his critical eye over the weekly big-screen releases via the BBC’s revered Film programme. Norman was popular enough to spawn a famous, oft-quoted catchphrase (“and why not?”) and his reviews informed a whole generation of film fans.
We had the enviable opportunity to chat to the legendary figure recently over the phone and ask him about how he turned film criticism into a long and fruitful career.
HeyUGuys: Your father (Leslie Norman) was a director but how did you get into the business, and specifically, the area of film criticism?
Barry Norman: My dad produced The Cruel Sea and directed Dunkirk amongst other titles, so I was brought up within the film industry and I’ve known movie people all my life. I actually went into journalism and I ended up as show business editor of the Daily Mail until 1971 when the paper merged and I was amongst the half the editorial stuff when were made redundant. I then went freelance and I did a whole manner of jobs – I was doing a weekly television review for The Times, writing leader columns for The Guardian and sports interviews for The Observer and Punch.
In 1972, I was invited with a number of TV critics to appear on Late Night Line-up to talk about TV from over the previous year. I had absolutely no desire to be on television. To my total surprise, I was doing very well as a freelance journalist, working harder than I ever had in my life but really enjoying it, and earning more money than I ever had before. That appearance with the other critics seemed to go really well however, and a few days later I got a call from the producer of a programme called Film 71, which was then only shown in London and the South East. One of its objectives was to find new faces for TV, so the presenter was changed every six weeks. The producer had seen me on the other show and didn’t think my appearance would frighten off viewers too much. He liked the stuff I was writing in The Guardian and wondered if I’d like to try my hand at reviewing films. Back then I thought it was very useful for a journalist to get as much experience as possible in every medium, so I said I’d have a go at it.
I was given camera and autocue tests, told I was a natural, and then handed a list of films to review for the next week’s programme. I went away feeling terribly happy thinking that an experienced TV producer regarded me as really good. When the contract came in I wasn’t sure how much of a natural he actually thought I was because it was for three weeks with an option of a possible three more appearances after that. I did the first programme and they decided to take up the option, meaning I was there for six weeks. At the end of that block, they asked me to stay on for another three weeks. They also tried out various people around that time, including [celebrated TV figure-turned Labour Peer] Joan Bakewell.
It must have been a real baptism of fire for you?
I had been on TV three times previous to all this and it had always been pretty disastrous. To tell you the truth, I had come to the conclusion that TV was simply not for me. I admired the people who I thought did very well [presenting], but I had no desire to join them. I think this worked in my favour because, prior to doing the Film programme, if I’d gone in there thinking that is my big chance so I mustn’t blow it, I’d have completely screwed it up. I was actually pretty relaxed when I went on, and I think that was the key.
Going back to earlier in your life, you must have visited the sets your dad worked on?
Yes. He worked at Ealing studios and in my teens I would often go there with dad. During the morning I would watch the crews as they were doing various scenes, which I found fascinating. Then there would be a marvellous lunch in the executive dining room. Sir Michael Balcon, who ran Ealing, would be seated at the head of the table, and all around him were the directors, producers and staff writers. There was a wonderful team feeling at Ealing. A director would explain an upcoming scene he had [during lunch], and the other filmmakers around the table would offer advice. I can’t think that would happen anywhere else in the world, but that’s what happened at Ealing. That was really great. I’d then go back to watch the productions in the afternoon and everybody would be doing pretty much the same as the morning, and then I’d start looking at my watch and wishing six o’clock would come around and I could go home. As you can tell, I realised early on I didn’t quite have the patience to be a filmmaker myself.
Did you ever feel a sense of responsibility towards the audience on the Film programme?
I felt a strong sense of responsibility. When I sat down to write my first script for Film 71, fingers poised over my typewriter, I thought, what kind of a critic will I be? I was a pretty decent journalist so I could have been anything. I could have been a Mirror/ Sun type, rolling in the aisles-type critic, or I could imitate the deeply earnest, Cahiers du Cinéma kind. I thought long and hard about all these things and it got ridiculous. I was going on TV and it was going to be difficult enough presenting a programme whilst pretending to be someone I wasn’t. In the end I thought, to hell with it, I’ll just write my honest opinion. I may have been wrong, not that I ever was of course, or I may have been right. Nevertheless, what I said was what I truly believed. I felt I owed my totally honesty to the audience and the films themselves.
You talked earlier about the Film programme being available only in London and the South East. When did the rest of the country receive it?
It was broadcast everywhere by 1975 in a fortnightly slot on Sunday with a Melvyn Bragg book review programme called Read All About It. Gradually it went weekly and stayed there.
When it got to that stage, was there ever a shifting pattern in cinemagoers around the country due to the programme?
I got lots of comments and opinions back, but I don’t think many critics had a huge influence on the audiences. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest star in the world, god knows how he ever got the that position as he was more human special effect than actor, it didn’t matter what any critic said about him and his films – they did fantastically well at the box office, crap as they might well have been.
What particularly pleased me was, originally, the BBC didn’t want to review foreign-language or arthouse films because they thought that with the programme being on BBC1, the films reviewed had to be mainstream. I argued that this was rubbish and there were some bloody good films in those categories, and I ended up reviewing them anyway. I did have quite a considerable influence on the size of the audiences for those types of cinema. I felt these were ambitious films was trying to do something other than merely entertain, so I was very happy about that result.
During your career, were there any debut filmmakers who you rightly predicted would go on to bigger and brighter things?
I can’t honestly say as I was terribly good at spotting that kind of talent. I was always weary of it as many first-time directors who had done a great film, usually didn’t turn out that way. Their second, third and, if they were lucky, forth films normally weren’t nowhere near as good as that first feature.
Are you much of a cinemagoer nowadays?
Not really. I occasionally attend screeners, but I live 30 miles out of London and to travel all that way in means virtually most of my day gone, and I can’t afford to waste that amount of time. What I tend to do is study what’s coming out and then I’ll decide what to see at my local cinema instead.
Are there any films recently which have got you excited?
I’ll tell you one thing, I am not one of those people who bemoan the fact that they don’t make films the way they used to. I think that is bullshit. I think that the best films today are as good as, and technically better, than anything made before. I also think that the worst films made today are much crapper than those from years back, and sometimes even worse.
An awful lot of money is spent on rather rubbish-y blockbusters aimed at 15 to 18 year-olds. Those are the kinds of films that, even back in the so-called golden age of Hollywood, would simply not have been made because they’re such rubbish. Nevertheless, I do firmly believe that the best films are getting better, and that’s what keeps me going back to the cinema. I refuse to be stuck back in a nostalgic era of thinking that everything was better in the old days, because it wasn’t.
What do you think of modern film criticism? Do you read much online?
I do read online opinions but I don’t take much notice of them simply because I don’t know these people. I prefer to follow the critics whose work I’m familiar with, and I know how their minds work because I’ve read their stuff throughout the years, and in many cases, I actually know them personally. I don’t always agree with them by any means, but they are the ones I read and follow. I’m not suggesting film bloggers are no good – it’s just as I don’t know them, and I’m less willing to trust them. They may even be better than I was which is impossible, of course.
The difference, I feel, between professional critics and those who go to the movies a lot is that the critic should have seen far more films than regular cinemagoers. That means he/she should have more yardstick against which to measure what they’re watching than anybody else.
What used to be your process when it came to writing reviews?
The only difference between how I used to go to the movies before I was paid to do so was that I took copious notes each time. It might be five weeks before I had to actually write my review of a film, and in the meantime I would probably see ten or more features, meaning I could easily get confused.
I went to every movie essentially as a cinemagoer, each time hoping to discover something I would love. Nine times out of ten that wasn’t the case, but nevertheless, every time I visited the cinema that was my process. I wanted to be enthralled, entertained and intellectually stimulated if possible. That was it. That’s the way I did it. I always wanted to be serious about the movies, but I dreaded being solemn, because I think that it fatal.
Retired as the professional critic, Mr. Norman now invests his time attending film-related social events and is engaged with a number of charities. Another of his life-long passions is cricket, and one charity which is close to his heart is The Lord’s Taverners, for whom he is president. You can find more about the charity via its website.