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 and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Show Hide image

The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.