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28 October 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:06pm

Erudition and an abiding silliness: a tribute to film critic Philip French (1933-2015)

After stints at the Times and at the New Statesman, he settled in at the Observer for the long haul in 1979. He left only when he reached his 80th birthday in 2013.

By Ryan Gilbey

The life of the professional newspaper film critic can, in the UK at least, be an odd and demanding one. It is a dream job for anyone who loves and lives movies and can write well about them on cue and like clockwork. But the routine of it can turn sane women batty, tall and hopeful boys into gnarled and resentful homunculi, bright-eyed youths into blinking moles fearful of the afternoon light. If you’re not up to the task, it can really take the spring out of your step.

The daily routine is set up like so: you see three or four films on a Monday, the same again on a Tuesday, you write all day on Wednesday, file late that day or the next morning (depending on your deadline and on the tenderness of your editor) and then, if the following week is to be a particularly heavy one, there will be more screenings on the Thursday and Friday as well, for films opening the next Friday. Somewhere in between, there may be time to eat or to see your loved ones, or merely to contemplate your complexion and wonder casually who it was that put Max Schreck’s face in the mirror in place of your own.

I have met many critics whose blood was long ago turned to vinegar by years or decades spent on this treadmill for the senses; who regard the cinema screen with pre-emptive scorn and bitterness; who respond to the film-related question “What’s it about?” with the weary answer “It’s about an hour too long.” But the late Philip French, the legendary and long-serving film critic who died this week, was not one of them. Not even close. After stints at the Times and at this parish (where he reviewed film and theatre), he settled in at the Observer for the long haul – not that he knew it then – in 1979. He left only when he reached his 80th birthday in 2013. He had been at the Observer, reviewing with equanimity, enthusiasm and warm but weather-beaten wit every film that came his way for 34 years.

There may have been the occasional bump in the road. (In the late-1990s, the paper launched an ill-advised and abortive challenge to his supremacy by drafting in a squadron of reviewers to share the workload, parcelling out different films to each; it didn’t last.) But there were never any dips in the quality of French’s prose. There was no end to his knowledge and no sign of fatigue in his filmgoing habits. Where others might have been diminished by the constant grind of screenings separated only by a toilet break and an inadequate sandwich, French never waned.

Some reviewers take bad films as an affront, internalising the awfulness of what they have seen. French kept his spirits sprightly, like his writing. And the sense of balance and good humour was evident in person as well as on the page. He had an abiding silliness that sat alongside the erudition. He was famous for his puns and wordplay (yes, his review of David Mamet’s Heist really did conclude with the phrase “heist by his own petard”). Humour came off him in waves. I remember walking with him after a screening in 1997 of Adrian Lyne’s film of Lolita, which had reminded him, he told me, of one of those road signs you see nowadays: “Humps for the next two miles.”

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Readers will have appreciated his inclusive, welcoming personality, as well as his limitless knowledge and measured writing. As someone who saw him mostly at screenings throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, when I too was working on a daily newspaper, I can say that he lightened the load greatly. He was friendly and encouraging to younger critics like myself; a compliment from him on your work was to be cherished forever. In those pre-IMDb days, you could go to him for a casual enquiry about some art designer from the silent era, and you would come away not only with the answer you wanted but a feeling of enrichment. If anyone knew who did the catering or served as clapper-loader on a forgotten early-1960s bedroom farce, it would be Philip. In fact, I’m not sure the word “forgotten” could be applied to any film where he was concerned. He absorbed it all and it stayed absorbed. 

He seemed to me back then to be the polar opposite to the excellent and acidic Standard critic Alexander Walker (who died in 2003). Where Walker jangled his keys impatiently or sighed extravagantly at whatever follies were projected before him, French bore it all with coolness and warmth. He never left a film before the final credit had vanished from the screen. He stayed right until the end – in every sense.