Norman’s silver screen secrets put him back in the limelight
For an entire generation Barry Norman was the man against who all film reviewers were judged, and the person who advised an entire nation on what was worth seeing at your local cinema. From 1972 to 1999, Barry fronted the BBC’s iconic Film... series, weathering erratic late-night scheduling to gain not only a loyal following but a special place in the affections of filmgoers everywhere.
His instantly recognisably delivery and his catchphrase ‘and why not?’ – which he still maintains was impressionist Rory Bremner’s invention – made him famous. He says television made him realise that underneath his serious journalistic exterior there lurked a latent show-off.
This then forms the basis of his one-man show And Why Not? An Evening with Barry Norman CBE and his Favourite Films.
Although, the ever honest journo, he admits it is somewhat of a misnomer to describe the evening as a discussion of his favourite films.
“I do talk about my four favourite films but most of it is reminiscences about my career as a broadcaster.”
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Fed up with the apathy of the then BBC hierarchy he fled to rivals Sky for two years before finally stepping away from what he regards as the increasing banality of television.
“It’s so difficult to conduct a proper interview these days. Publicists control access to all the stars and they are just interested in soundbites – I am not.”
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He says that evening may include anecdotes how separate arguments with John Wayne and Robert de Niro almost descended into a punch-up, how Peter Sellers very nearly got him the sack and how Richard Burton fell asleep as he was interviewing him.
He said that he has a collection of stories which he switches around to keep himself fresh and to ensure that if he has more than one engagement in an area in a short space of time, he doesn’t repeat the same stories.
“I keep a log of what pieces I do where, so if people come again, then they won’t hear the same show twice.”
When I casually ask who was the most impressive person he interviewed or the person that he was most pleased to have got to talk to, he says, quite matter of factly, that having been raised in a film-industry family, he has never been starstruck.
“Having been brought up surrounded by actors since I was a young boy I knew that actors were just working stiffs like the rest of us. I always accorded them the honour of treating them as equals, I felt that was the least I could do.”
His father was producer and film director Leslie Norman responsible for such films as The Cruel Sea, the award-winning Mandy and the John Mills epic Dunkirk. However, in answer to my question he says that writers and directors have always given him more pleasure than interviewing actors.
“Martin Scorsese was terrific as was Billy Wilder. I could sit and talk to both of them all day. They both knew film and the film industry inside out. They both loved film as does Steven Spielberg, I always enjoy talking to him. William Goldman, the screenwriter, the man who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a wonderful man to talk to.”
He said the most difficult part of his job was not cajoling answers out of the stars but persuading the nervous PR people that he wasn’t going to perform a character assassination if they weren’t in the room to maintain control.
“I always refused to do interviews with the PR people present. I wasn’t going to clear questions before hand or not ask certain questions and after a while they stopped insisting because they knew I wasn’t going to ask who are they sleeping with?
“That’s the sort of question stars don’t like, but I was always just interested in their work. I was never interested in the gossip side of things and never saw that as part of my remit.
“I was there as a film reviewer and I wanted to talk to them about their work. I found that once they realised you wanted to talk seriously, then they opened up and it wasn’t difficult to get beneath the surface and get a glimpse of the real person.
“I remember having several conversations with Martin Scorsese and he was an absolute joy. You don’t really ask questions of Marty, you wind him up and off he goes. He was absolutely riveting.
“You could also be very frank about things. For example, I told him that his Cape Fear was one of the better re-makes but was let down by the end in which Robert De Niro takes an unconscionable time to die. He agreed. He said: ‘Yeah, I wish I hadn’t done that, it was the Hollywood ending’.
“For me it ruined the credibility of the film because no-one could have survived the things that De Niro survived.
“So it’s not difficult to get beneath the surface when you are talking about serious matters. Had I gone in there asking questions about their love life I wouldn’t have got close to scratching the surface because they would have clammed up.”
Hearing Barry Norman chat away reminds me of why he was so successful on television – he spoke our language, the language of a film enthusiast not an academic. Film, in his eyes, is a populist pastime. Film, he says, can be art but it happens by accident rather than design.
So what are his top films? He maintains that he doesn’t really have a top ten of all-time greats because the list would change every time he compiled it but he does have four films which he returns to time and again. They are Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Dirty Harry.
He said that when talking about Gone With The Wind he really had to discipline himself because there were enough dramas happening off-screen to fill an entire evening by itself. The film chewed up and spat out four directors – two of whom also worked on The Wizard of Oz – while the hunt for the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara went on for 18 months. When, at last, producer David O’Selznick cast Paulette Goddard in the role, had expensive colour screen tests shot and costume fittings done, he then had to replace her because The American Legion of Decency threatened to boycott the film because Goddard was living in sin with Charlie Chaplin.
Ironically, Goddard was in fact married to Chaplin by this time, but to many Americans she was the wrong sort of Scarlet woman.
Barry said that both Gone With The Wind and Casablanca were both timeless classics even though they broke all the rules of film-making; the most basic being you don’t start shooting until you have a polished script and a cast.
Director George Cukor was shooting the landmark burning of Atlanta scene, with legendary stuntman Yakima Cannut doubling for Scarlett, when English actress Vivien Leigh visited the set. She was cast in the role shortly afterwards.
Bizarrely, Barry Norman claims being made redundant, in 1971, from his job as showbiz editor at the Daily Mail was the best thing that ever happened to him. It meant he was free to dabble in shows like Late Night Line-Up which then directly led to BBC producer Iain Johnstone, and later Times film reviewer, offering him a temporary slot as presenter on a new film programme Film ’72 – a temporary job which lasted until 1999.
It was clearly a job he has enjoyed. During his 26 years at the BBC he also made three series of The Hollywood Greats and a history of Hollywood called Talking Pictures. At the dawn of the new millennium he issued a book The 100 Best Films of the Century, remarkable because it included, at the time, recent releases like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
So are there any movies released in the last ten years that he would be tempted to include, if the book were to be re-issued today?
“There are quite a few actually. I would certainly put Gladiator in there along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and much more recently I would put Good Night, Good Luck, the George Clooney movie which tackled the McCarthy era witchunts, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. Brokeback Mountain is another that deserves a place because it is a ground-breaker. It was one of the first Hollywood movies which came out and said that homosexuality is not such an evil thing. And I think that because it said it so outspokenly is why it didn’t win the Oscar that year. They gave it to Crash instead which although it had a nice message that racism is rather nasty, it is something that we really ought to know by now.”
Mention of Clooney leads into a discussion about multi-talented faces and names that perhaps we need to watch. Barry points out that few people who saw Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide or as The Man With No Name in Siergo Leonne’s spaghetti westerns would have guessed that 30 years down the road he would be making films like The Changeling, Invictus or Mystic River.
“Eastwood really came out of left-field. He was essentially a western actor, probably the best western actor since John Wayne, but that’s how Hollywood and the world saw him. Then he branched out into the Dirty Harry series and at the same time he released his first film as a director, Play Misty For Me, and that was a revelation.
“It was superbly directed and then all of a sudden everyone realised that this was someone they had to take notice of. Some critics had derided him as a western actor but he quickly revealed himself to be a very good actor and an even better director.”
So is there anyone following in Eastwood’s footsteps?
“George Clooney is certainly heading in that Eastwood direction of using his fame to get interesting, perhaps less commercial, films made. Clooney is probably one of the most interesting people in movies at the moment.
“He’s doing caper movies one minute, a romantic comedy the next, then he’s does quirky films with the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderberg and then he’s directing left-field stuff like Good Night, Good Luck for himself.
“It’s clear that he’s not just a star but he’s a very good director and I think his career will develop more along those lines as he is less able or less willing to play the romantic lead. I think then he will follow Eastwood and become a very notable director as well as a notable actor.”
Elsewhere, Barry Norman believes that Scottish director Danny Boyle, the man who gave us Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, still has some surprises up his sleeve.
“It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next. You can’t get two more different movies than Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire and he handled them both with delicate precision.”
All of which leads us to the age-old question: ‘What makes a good film critic?’ Opinions are ten-a-penny in pub discussions and car journeys home from the cinema. So what gives a film critic his authority?
Barry answers in a heartbeat.
“You have got to have seen a lot of films. The basic difference between the professional critic and the amateur is that the professional gets to see far more films than the amateur. It’s all very well for someone to go along to a cinema and say that’s the best thriller I have ever seen but if you have only ever seen five then it doesn’t mean a lot.
“But the guy saying it has seen 100 then it does mean something.”
He added that honesty and consistency should be the cornerstone of a critics review.
“It doesn’t matter if it stars someone you know or like, if the film is crap, say its crap. And vice-versa. If the film stars someone you don’t like but it is a good film, then you have to come clean and say it is good. Total honesty is the important thing. You owe that to your audience and to the film itself.
“Film reviewing is subjective, that’s why you have to be consistent. If a film genre or a performer was not to my taste, I would come clean and say it up front. I would say this is not to my taste but of its type it’s quite good.
“That’s not being arrogant, and saying my taste is better than yours, it’s recognising that we are all different. You can say that so and so doesn’t make me laugh but if liked his last film you will probably like this because this is good, and that is good and leave it at that.
“There are no absolutes in criticism. If it works for you then it is a good film. Many critics gave Richard Curtis’ film Love Actually a hard time. I thought it was a very good film.
“They accused him of not living in the real world but from what I could see it was recognisably somebody’s world. It might not be their world but I suspect neither is Mike Leigh’s world and they don’t give him a hard time.”
Finally having a knowledge of how the film business works is also important when giving an informed opinion.
“Knowing what a director does, what the cinematographer and editor does all helps build up an appreciation of how a film works.”