Brilliant and uncompromising film critic

 

Alexander Walker, who has died suddenly aged 73 and who reviewed films for the London Evening Standard for more than 43 years, was one of the most widely known critics in Britain and won the critic of the year prize three times at the British Press Awards.

He was the complete antithesis of the old journalistic adage that you don't ask a critic to write a story because they will probably make a hash of it, Derek Malcolm of the Guardian recalls. Walker never made a hash of it and could turn his hand to a great deal more than simple reviewing. Yet he never lost his enthusiasm for his main task - to tell readers, in no uncertain terms, what films to see and what to miss.

He could annoy and provoke like few others. And this capacity, sometimes quite bilious, made it all the more wondrous for a film-maker who, having been severely hauled over the coals, was then heaped with generous praise for his next movie.

One of Walker's most obvious characteristics was that you never knew which way he would go. Surprise was often a key element in his reviews.

He resolutely refused to sit on the fence, and staleness, caused by watching stream upon stream of bad movies as well as good ones, never set in. His prose was as polished and as fresh at the end as when he started.

Raised in Portadown, in his semi-autobiographical book, It's Only a Movie, Ingrid (1988), he recalls his fourth birthday, when his mother took him to the cinema for the first time, to see a Buck Jones western. "Galileo, discovering the Earth moves, experienced the same pang of excitement as I did discovering pictures that move," he recalled in that book.

His theory was that the cinema provided "consolation entertainment" for his fellow Protestants in Portadown. "Ethnically and artistically, the Roman Catholic population possessed a far deeper, broader heritage of cultures to draw on when they wanted to amuse themselves," he wrote.

"Years later, at a film premiere in Manila, I heard the narrator bring one of the country's bloodier sagas of repeated foreign invasions to an end with the laconic comment, 'The Catholic Church brought Christianity to the Philippines, the Americans brought the cinema'. I thought of Ireland, and being a Protestant, blessed the Americans."

Walker attended the local grammar school, then studied at Queen's in Belfast, the College of Europe in Bruges and the University of Michigan, where he lectured in political philosophy for two years from 1952.

He got his first break on the Birmingham Gazette, as features editor from 1954 to 1956, before moving to the Birmingham Post as leader writer and film critic, and then to the Standard in 1960.

There, Lord Beaverbrook took issue with his favourable review of Harold Lloyd's World Of Comedy, to which the press baron had taken his long-term companion, Lady Dunn. They had walked out and wanted Alex to explain himself. He retaliated thus: "Dear Lord Beaverbrook, I am sorry you and Lady Dunn did not enjoy Harold Lloyd's World Of Comedy. For me, in future, high buildings will hold an additional hazard."

Those who didn't know Walker, except from his work, were sometimes terrified of this always immaculate figure, or at least of ruffling his feathers. When his blood was up, he could be a formidable adversary, as the British Film Academy - then the British Film Institute, where he was a governor from 1989 to 1995, and finally the Film Council - knew.

He carried on a tireless campaign to rail against British film productions set in Northern Ireland and which, in his view, were pro-republican. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1990 the press conference for the Northern Ireland drama, Hidden Agenda, turned into a heated verbal battle between Walker and the film's English director, Ken Loach.

Afterwards, Walker led a small delegation of British critics to the office of the festival director, demanding that Hidden Agenda be withdrawn as a British entry in competition at the festival, but the festival refused to yield.

At Cannes last year Walker wrote a series of letters and organised a number of meetings to protest that the Northern Ireland Film Commission was housed with the Irish Film Board in the Irish Pavilion at the festival, rather than in the British Pavilion next door, which, ironically, was separated by green fencing. After all the discussions that followed, the arrangement remained as it was.

He gave no quarter and did not expect any. But once you got to know the man, his kindness and extreme politesse came through strongly. He was also a most entertaining dinner companion, telling stories superbly and offering a range of mimicry that would have been useful for any comedian. But he was, in some ways, a slightly sad figure who, though he had many friends, seemed to live almost totally through his work.

Walker's achievement lay as much in his biographical studies and books about the British film industry as in his weekly pieces; he had a shrewd understanding of both the film business and what made those in it tick.

Hollywood, England: The British Film Industry In The Sixties (1974) was particularly outstanding, and his biographies of Peter Sellers (1981) and Elizabeth Taylor (1990), and books on Greta Garbo (1980), Marlene Dietrich (1984), Bette Davis (1986), Joan Crawford (1983) and others were a model of their kind.

Altogether, Walker wrote 20 books, including an appreciation of Stanley Kubrick's work (1971) - he was one of the very few critics that reclusive director ever let near him - and was in the middle of another one when he died.

It's Only A Movie, Ingrid was named after the remark Alfred Hitchcock made to Ingrid Bergman when she cut up rough during shooting. But there was no "only" about Walker's attitude to movies and, whether you liked what he said or not, he was an outstandingly readable critic and a first-class journalist.

Alexander Walker: born March 22nd, 1930; died July 15th, 2003