What Barry Norman taught me: lessons from the master of film criticism
- Credit: Archant
Barry Norman’s death at the weekend prompted a genuine sense of loss from cinemagoers. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke pays a personal tribute to a man who was happy to share the secrets of film reviewing with him as a young wannabe.
For more than 25 years Barry Norman was the avuncular, reassuring face of the British film industry. For many of us he was our introduction to the world of cinema. He helped discover our taste in film, steer us away from highly promoted but cheaply made, exploitative turkeys and was a regular and welcome visitor into our homes.
From 1972 to 1998, he fronted the BBC’s long running Film... programme, a weekly digest of reviews, interviews and cinema-related features.
His death at the weekend triggered a genuine sense of loss from friends, colleagues and fans. Many of the sentiments expressed in various obituaries tallied with my own experience of Barry Norman. I interviewed him three times over the years, the first in 1989, when I was a fledgling film reviewer and I found him enormously supportive, enthusiastic and still in love with cinema.
During that first encounter we talked alot about the role of a film critic, the ingredients that make-up a balanced review and what he looked for in a good film.
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He had little time for pretension. Film should be about entertainment but he valued innovation and imagination and disliked sequels which merely retread the same ground that the successful first film had covered.
He gave me a lot of sage advice about reviewing that I still consciously use today. One of the big questions I asked was what did he feel were the key qualities that a really good reviewer should possess?. His answer has stayed with me ever since. “Film reviewing is subjective. You really can’t get away from that but a good reviewer acknowledges the fact and tries to be honest, reliable and consistent. Then the audience can gauge their own taste in relation to yours.
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“The audience doesn’t have to agree with you for them to make an informed decision based on your review. You should be a consistent, reliable marker. So someone saying: ‘If Barry Norman hates this, I’ll love it, is just as valid and helpful as someone always agreeing with me.”
This was a piece of advice I took to my heart and have tried to replicate. Consistency is king. Barry Norman was always an entertaining reviewer but had no time for those who just wanted to make reviewing a vehicle for clever writing. That sort of self-indulgence cut across his belief in honesty and what a review was for. “Who are you reviewing for? Certainly not yourself, otherwise why would you sit through much of the dross that inevitably comes your way.”
The other element which makes for a good reviewer, according to Barry, was experience. See as many films as you possibly can and the more you see, the more you can compare and contrast. The fact that a film reviewer had seen more films than the average cinemagoer was what gave the critic his authority.
It’s something that is currently at the forefront of the online forums when people are discussing the democratisation of opinion and whether the expert critic still has a role to play in modern arts and culture.
My two interviews with Barry in the internet age, the first in conjunction with the release of his autobiography ‘And Why Not?’ and then to promote a tour of showbiz reminiscences, found him ebullient but still certain of the value of the professional critic – someone who could marshal a coherent argument backed up with vast experience of their chosen subject.
As he said in 2011 interview: “Film is in my blood.” His father Leslie Norman was a producer and director who made films like The Cruel Sea and Marty as well as episodes of The Avengers, The Saint and The Persuaders.
He was not a fan of star ratings and felt they encouraged people not to read and therefore miss out on a nuanced and entertaining appreciation of a film. But, on the other hand he was not dismissive of bloggers per se but feared that many just added to the level of noise surrounding the film industry without adding much in terms of insight or debate.
Barry Norman was the product of a different media age – an age before the internet – but he was always passionate about communication and he valued expertise. As he was something of a personal hero, I take on board his reservations about our reliance on cheap soundbites and glib tweets about cinema when perhaps we should be offering audiences something a little more considered.