Film critic with popular and critical appeal
Obituary: Barry Norman
Barry Norman: Born August 21st, 1933; died June 30th, 2017
During a long journalistic career Barry Norman, who has died aged 83, perfected a flair for talking beguilingly about cinema to a mass television audience but in a way that did not make true aficionados wince. As the presenter and critic of BBC TV’s original Film 72 through to Film 98, he was knowledgeable without affectation, and he did not seem overawed by the industry’s leading lights.
Outside the BBC, his baggy-eyed good looks led to him being called by some “the thinking woman’s crumpet”. Within it, he was “Breezy Bazza”, and once, by John Wayne, he was labelled “a goddam liberal pinko faggot” – after Norman had laughed out loud at Wayne’s suggestion during a press conference that the US might consider bombing Moscow.
Norman never allowed such snipes to undermine his critical faculties. After trying his best to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger, he told a journalist that the star was “a humourless, self-satisfied clod”. After he had waited an hour and 40 minutes for Madonna to turn up for an interview at the Ritz, Paris, he walked out, saying that he could not have interviewed her politely. But even in such cases, he judged the films with fairness.
He was not intimidated by stardom. In the 1980s, he said of Give My Regards to Broad Street that Paul McCartney had apparently written the film script on the back of a postage stamp.
Norman was the son of the film producer and director Leslie Norman and his wife Elizabeth. Leslie was with Ealing Studios in the great days of the British film industry: he produced Mandy (1952) and The Cruel Sea (1953), and directed Dunkirk (1958) and The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961). But he believed that the business was crumbling and suggested that his son try newspapers instead.
So when Barry left Highgate school in north London, he went to cut his teeth on the Kensington Times. From there he progressed to the Daily Sketch as a reporter and then gossip columnist. He later joined the Daily Mail as a reporter and, later, show business editor.
Of the circumstances that led him out of print journalism and eventually into television in the 1970s, he wrote in his 1976 book, The Sundance Kid: “I was made redundant by the Daily Mail at about half-past nine on the night of Friday March 12th, 1971, and I mention this now not from any desire to brag but as a matter of historical fact. I should also like to take this opportunity to thank those responsible, whoever they may have been, for what at the time seemed an unkind – to say nothing of crass and insensitive – act; because from a professional point of view, making me redundant turned out to be quite the nicest thing the Daily Mail did for me in all the 13 years I worked for it.”
A Times executive took him to lunch and asked him to provide a weekly TV review. Having married another journalist, Diana Narracott, in 1957, Norman had a family with two daughters, Samantha and Emma, to support, and accepted £15 a week. His next job was as what he called “a sort of jobbing leader writer” on the Guardian, until the then editor, Alastair Hetherington, told him they had too many leader writers. The features editor, Peter Preston, appointed him as a columnist and Norman became the first journalist to write under his own name both for the Times and the Guardian – “a record of which I am insufferably proud”, he said later
Martin Jackson of the Daily Express, involved in running the television section of the Critics’ Circle, told him that the BBC2 discussion programme Late Night Line-Up was looking for someone to talk about the Circle’s nomination for TV play of the year. Norman obliged, and after that experience, Iain Johnstone, the producer of the BBC’s new show Film 72, asked him if he would like to present it.
He soon established a formula for the programme: Film 72 became Film 73, and so on, year after year, with Billy Taylor’s instrumental rendition of his song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free as the theme music, and in everyone’s mind it was Norman’s show. On BBC Radio 4 he also presented the Today programme (1974-76), and the travel programmes Going Places (1977-81) and Breakaway (1979-80).
He first realised he had become a celebrity when asked for his autograph while browsing in Brent Cross shopping centre, north London. In 1998, while renegotiating his contract with the BBC after doing the film programme for 26 years, Sky TV wooed him with a reported £350,000 salary. Norman said: “What a nice idea, to accept a new challenge at my age,” and stayed till 2001.
Norman’s wife Diana died in 2011. He is survived by Samantha and Emma, and by three grandsons.