Mark Kermode: The next generation of film critics will come from the internet

We sent Bim to Cuddle her Favourite Critic.

Do you know what fancy rich people like? Deep in the heart of discreet wealth, aka the lobby of The Savoy, I discovered the answer. You ready? It’s mirrors. Rich people love them - can’t get enough of ‘em. I suppose it makes all that opulence gleam a little brighter, all that reflection... But I digress. Because thrilling as drying my hands on an actual cotton hand towel was, I was not at the hotel to report from the frontline of Broken Britain. No, I was there because of an internet miracle, in which I got to meet and interview Mark Kermode, based on a single paragraph I wrote in last week’s column. Following the introduction of a new enterprise, Cuddle-A-Critic, I mentioned my long-time admiration for Mr Kermode (here’s a sample tweet from last December, so you know it’s real), his reviews and his hair.

Mere hours later, my phone pinged, informing me of a new reply on Twitter. It was Mark, and it read: “Glad the hair won through in the end. Nice article.

Days later, I was placing a Dictaphone on a table for a chat. The internet wins again. 

We spoke for half an hour and he was, as expected, so insightful and interesting and generous that I forgot to take any shorthand. Below is a mere slice of our conversation. And before you ask, the answer is yes: the quiff is even more magnificent in 3-D. 

On U-turns and ‘getting it wrong’

One of the questions you get asked as a critic is ‘do you get things wrong?” Of course you do. You change. As I’ve always said, criticism is in the end to do with an opinion. Factual stuff is factual and you do need to get that right. Contextualisation is contextualisation. Knowledge is knowledge. But opinion is your opinion.

And it is really strange going back and looking at something about which you were convinced. I mean, I walked out of Blue Velvet when I saw it. I stormed out and wrote a really angry review of it. Three years later I went back and saw it again and realised it was one of the greatest movies ever made. Part of getting it wrong was part of the learning process. What I discovered from Blue Velvet was, if a movie really gets under your skin, you can go either way with it. And whereas it’s possible to love great movies, and hate really bad movies, it’s the movies you love and hate at the same time that are really exceptional. 

When AI first came out, I didn’t like it at all. I remember I was really cruel about it. Years later, we did a Culture Show interview with Spielberg for his 60th birthday and I apologised to him. And he said: “Well, it’s interesting. You’re only the second critic to apologise to me. The first one was Vince Canby” - who apparently shitcanned Close Encounters. So it was a slightly different scale, but you know. 

 

On his process

I don’t make notes during the film. I do that afterwards, at the end of the day. One of the things we do on the blog are these immediate responses. But that’s not a review; it needs time to settle down. I mean my response to Killer Joe was very different after a few days of letting it settle. Firstly, you have to figure out what you think. Your opinion is your opinion.

One of the things I did in The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex was attempt to do a definition of what a good review is. And there were a number of different categories but the basic things were: to describe the film adequately. You have to know where the film comes from and contextualise it properly. You have to assess it on its own terms – if it’s a comedy, did you laugh? And then beyond that, there is your reaction to it, that which you cannot change or be anything other than honest about. The worst thing you can do is attempt to second guess the audience because: a) you’ll always get it wrong; and b) you’ll regret it. It’s much better to be honestly, completely wrong than to be dishonestly closer to being ‘right’. 

On bias

I get accused of being soft on Friedkin. I don’t think I have gone soft on him; there are times when I think he’s made very disappointing films. But it is undoubtedly the case that I will go into any Friedkin film with a sense of expectation. The same is true of Paul Thomas Anderson. Because like anybody else, they’re making a body of work and it’s mad to suggest that that doesn’t affect you. You can’t write yourself out of it. What you have to do is be upfront about it. 

And people can surprise you – Guy Ritchie, who I think has made some of the worst movies ever, then made the Sherlock Holmes films, where he’s referring to Hammer, and getting the characters right... You have to be open-minded.

On his favourite critics and the art of criticism

Absolutely Nigel Floyd. He’s my kind of mentor. He writes for Time Out and when I used to work in Manchester at City Life magazine, I used to edit Nigel’s copy, when it came to the regionals. You’d read it, and there’d just be nothing to cut. I tell you, it’s not until you’ve subbed somebody’s copy that you know what good copy looks like. And I met him when I came to London and he was really kind to me at Time Out and sort of took me under his wing. He’s now one of my closest friends but in terms of writing, I still just regularly read his stuff and go ‘bugger’, because I’d give my right arm to write like that. We disagree about loads of films but it doesn’t matter. The opinion is not the point. He’s pithy, too. That’s a real craft. 

Philip French writes with grace and wit and humour, and even when I don’t agree with what he says, it’s the way it’s expressed. He was recently recognised in the New Year's Honours list and I tweeted that he was recognised for consistently elevating the profession. I feel very passionate about film criticism as a craft, a profession. 

I think we live in a time in which criticism is not taken seriously, as an art form. I’m not saying for one minute I consider what I do to be art – it’s not. But there are people who are up there at the top of the tree: Roger Ebert, Dilys Powell, Pauline Kael, Anne Billson... They know what they’re doing. And they write in a way that is elegant and funny and witty. It’s a craft. 

On a new generation of critics

The next generation of critics will come from the internet. There’s a misconception about the internet, which is that blogging is changing and devaluing criticism. It hasn’t. At the beginning of any new way of dispersing information, there’s a kind of sense of anarchic freedom: you suddenly have a gaggle of voices. When Roger Ebert started doing his TV show with Siskel, people wrote essays about how it was the end of film criticism. What they didn’t realise is that it’s just another way of doing it. 

I still think of myself as a writer, but I’m primarily known for the radio show. I love radio, and I know there are people out there who look at me and say “This is what we have? THIS? Some guy blathering in a studio?” But it’s just all different ways of doing it. And blogging is clearly the future. It will settle down and the good will emerge and it will come down to the same basic rules: are you doing the job properly? Do you know what you’re talking about? Are contextualising? Are you writing wittily and entertainingly and engagingly? I have no doubt that right now out there, there is some smart 16-year-old woman or man, who’s writing powerful stuff that in ten years’ time will be held up.

Mark Kermode. Photo: Getty

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.