Print the legend

And Why Not? (As I Never Did Say): memoirs of a film lover

Barry Norman <em>Simon & Schuster, 349p

''And why not?" Did Barry Norman ever say it? Does anyone care? Oddly enough, Barry gets rather pissed off about this prosaic matter of fact, his supposed telly catchphrase, and the way members of the public took to saying it to his bemused face.

"Useless to tell them that I had never used it, that it was entirely Rory [Bremner]'s invention. I defied people to find a single programme in which I had ever uttered the words, but they wouldn't listen. Wherever I went, people murmured 'And why not?' at me. It was very irritating and I went around complaining bitterly that I had been lumbered against my will with this meaningless phrase . . ."

Can you imagine it? Nice Barry, of all people, complaining bitterly to you about something so innocuous? I think if it had been me to whom he complained, bitterly, I would have felt a little like Bertrand Russell being put right by Wittgenstein on the proper way to whistle a certain phrase of Mozart's.

Barry Norman reviewed films on television from 1971 until last year, very largely on the BBC, but latterly on Sky; and it strikes me as preposterous that anyone could ever claim never to have said "And why not" in 30 years of television broadcasting. Rather grudgingly, it seems to me, Barry admits that finally, he came to recognise that Bremner had done him a favour in giving him the catch-phrase; but nowhere does poor Barry ever really understand the point of the phrase in the first place. Satire isn't meant to be accurate. It is meant to make someone look faintly ridiculous, and so Barry complaining that he never said "And why not?" is a bit like Margaret Thatcher telling Gerald Scarfe that her nose looks too big in his cartoons in the Sunday Times.

And look at that parenthetical title again: And Why Not? (As I Never Did Say). Poor Barry still can't let it go, even though nobody gives a monkey's whether he said it or not, in the same way that no one but some silly-ass cineaste really gives a damn that Humph never said "Play it again, Sam". When Bremner used the phrase "And why not?" it was indeed a little like Woody Allen exercising some artistic licence with Rick's near-identical line in Casablanca. Bremner intended what he said in his living caricature (he's not a straight impersonator) to be indicative of Barry's breezy, agreeable (well, so I thought, until I read this book) live-and-let-live critical persona. Reading this often rather querulous autobiography, I was reminded of something someone says in John Ford's classic movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance: "When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend."

If Barry Norman didn't ever say it, why use the phrase for the title of this book? I rather suspect that Barry wanted to call his autobiography something else, and that it was the publishers who overcame his misgivings. And why not? Presumably, they want the book to sell and to make money. And what's wrong with that? (Goodness, Barry's dialectic, tentative style is catching.)

Barry always struck me as a very fair kind of film critic, too good-humoured to nurture a grudge, too clubbable to be really trenchant, too decent ever to yield to the flashy, Tynanish temptation of a felicitous but hurtful phrase, too conformable to succumb to the malice of the true critic and put Rosa Klebb's boot in. Which is all quite at odds with this rather prickly book.

Alistair MacLean threw him out of his house. John Wayne nearly hit him. Peter Sellers lied to him and tried to have him fired from the Daily Mail ("fuck him", says Barry; and why not?). Robert De Niro got upset with a particular line of question-ing. Madonna was late for an interview. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not Barry's favourite man. Nor is Bruce Willis.

Others less obviously stellar than these fare no better. For example, there is "not a word of truth" in an account given by David English, to some poor hack writing a history of the Mail, of how Barry was made redundant. It goes on. When Barry defected to Sky from the Beeb, nobody bothered to thank him for all those years presenting Film '71, '72, '73, etc. Nobody even wished him luck. Alan Yentob finally got round to asking him to reconsider, but by then Barry had given his word to Elisabeth Murdoch. And who could blame him for that?

Generally, there is a sense of cards being marked. Barry would probably call this "putting the record straight", but to the rest of us it looks more like "settling old scores". Which makes this a fascinating read. Because it's rather comforting to discover that nice Barry holds just as many grudges as the rest of us. And why not? That's what an autobiography is for, isn't it? I think it was Orwell who observed that autobiography is to be trusted only when it reveals something disgraceful. And if he didn't say it, then he jolly well ought to have done.