Barry Norman obituary: immense knowledge, undeniable passion

His fame saw him feature in ‘Spitting Image’ and he won over audiences with gentle style

The film critic Barry Norman has died at the age of 83. Norman presented a much loved film show from 1972-1998 on the BBC. Video: BBC

 

Only two film critics in the English-speaking world have gained the starriest class of celebrity.

One was the late Roger Ebert. The other was Barry Norman.

At the height of his fame in the mid-1970s, he was seen as enough of a star to appear in a Morecambe and Wise sketch. Later, he had his own Spitting Image puppet.

I met him just once.

Over 30 years ago, the University Philosophical Society invited Norman, who has died at the age of 83, for a public interview in Trinity College Dublin.

The event sold out in seconds. Students were squatting on floor and hanging from the light fixtures.

Few movie stars could have attracted the audience that the host of Film ‘85 (as it then was) managed. How did that happen?

Cinema was then more solidly bedded into cultural discourse. Broadcast television had a power that has since been diluted by multi-channel Babel. But there was something specific about Norman’s engaging, dry manner that connected directly with film fanatics and casual viewers.

He first hosted the BBC Film… programme in 1972 and, aside from a brief break in 1982, continued that job until the show became Film ‘98. His knowledge was immense. His quiet passion for the medium was undeniable.

What really won audiences over, however, was the gentle conversational style that suggested the words on the autocue were just popping into his head. Jonathan Ross, who inherited the Film programme from Norman, could never manage that. The format suddenly seemed dated and inflexible.

Norman claimed he rarely uttered his supposed catchphrase – a shrugged “And why not?” – but those words, never far from his Spitting Image puppet’s lips, suggests a fatalistic tolerance that suited his avuncular persona nicely. He was enough of a professional to use it for a charming memoir in 2003.

Born into the film business

Norman was born into the film business. His father Leslie was a successful director and producer. Were the younger Norman around to review Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk, he would have enjoyed pointing out that his dad directed the 1958 film of the same name.

Leslie warned Barry away from the precarious film business and he turned to journalism.

Norman worked for the long-defunct Daily Sketch and spent some time as a gossip columnist for the Daily Mail.

“I think it was more fun, and probably more dangerous, with all the drinking that went on,” he told the Guardian decades later. “It was a very free and easy atmosphere and editors didn’t seem to care what you did with your time so long as you produced your copy.”

That job put him in the way of the era’s biggest movie stars during the 1960s. He claimed that, having met many of them with his dad, he was rarely intimidated or overawed. He was able to connect with them as everyday human beings.

Norman was sacked from the Mail in 1971 when that paper merged with the Daily Sketch. He seems to have tried his hand at everything bar the bridge column in the year that followed. He wrote the script for a Mail cartoon script. He penned leaders on a range of subjects.

The first incarnation of the Film… programme used a roster of presenters (a system the still-present show returned to last year). Such luminaries as Joan Bakewell and Frederic Raphael shared duties with Norman before he took sole control of the reins in 1972.

His first film review was of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. The first guests were Charlton Heston and James Stewart. What better time to launch a film programme than when the old greats were still around and a new post-classical Hollywood was re-energising the medium?

Norman did occasionally receive criticism for being just a little too cosy. Notorious interviews with Michelle Pfeiffer and Tom Cruise bordered on the fawning. But he was capable of caustic wit when tearing apart the week’s more dismal releases. The twist of the knife feels that bit less comfortable when delivered by a nice man in a patterned jumper.

Barry was vocal about his unease at the show’s erratic scheduling. It would pop up at the unsociable hours when many of hard-working film fans were long abed (remember that, for much of his tenure on the Film… show, VCRs were a luxury item).

By the time he left, relations with management were far from friendly. He claimed that, on his last day, no senior BBC representative called to wish him well.

Norman was, however, enough of a celebrity that his departure was announced on the corporation’s main news bulletin.

Norman was particularly critical of the era’s director general John Birt. “It’s a huge, impersonal organisation and it had become more like that under John Birt,” he said later.

“I’m sure that what he did in cutting costs and all that needed to be done, but Michael Grade said he took all the fun out of working for the BBC, and I would go along with that.”

A period hosting a film programme on Sky followed, but the show was cancelled after just three years. He never stopped going to the cinema. Like many film fans of his generation, however, he felt that the medium had lost some of its gravity.

“There are still people around making films for grown-up audiences who are prepared to take their minds with them, but that really belongs to the independent sector. You have to look for them quite hard,” he said.

He was tolerant of young idiots. After that event at the Phil, he and his wife Diana took a small party of us for many, many drinks at the Shelbourne Hotel.

I argued furiously with him about the Coen brothers’ recent Blood Simple, which he didn’t much like.

There can be no surer evidence of his tolerance than his willingness to entertain the incoherent views of a drunk student.

The dean is no more.

Norman’s 10 favourite films (BFI Sight and Sound poll)

1. Battleship Potemkin (1925) (Sergei Eisenstein)

2. Bringing Up Baby (1938) (Howard Hawks)

3. Citizen Kane (1941) (Orson Welles)

4. Paths of Glory (1957) (Stanley Kubrick)

5. Rashomon (1950) (Akira Kurosawa)

6. La Règle du jeu (1939) (Jean Renoir)

7. The Searchers (1956) (John Ford)

8. The Seventh Seal (1957) (Ingmar Bergman)

9. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen)

10. Some Like It Hot (1959) (Billy Wilder)