His love did not go sour: a sweet tribute to Barry Norman

Andrew Collins quotes from his teenage diary while remembering the film critic on BBC Radio 5 Live.

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Film ’81 is my favourite programme!” The writer and broadcaster Andrew Collins was quoting from his teenage diary during a sweet tribute to Barry Norman on Stephen Nolan’s BBC Radio 5 Live show (1 July, 9pm). “Not only for its info,” wrote his 15-year-old self, “but for its natural, witty, honest, reliable presenter . . .”

Much has been made since Norman’s recent death aged 83 of his remaining a “natural and reliable” critic to the end. No small thing. I heard elsewhere that Norman had estimated he had seen around 13,000 movies during his lifetime. Yet, during his career, he was rarely tempted to contextualise the movies within their industry, as did Pauline Kael, who stepped into film production for a while as though in a defeated response to the powerful realisation that it’s all about the money.

Norman did not imagine himself as a lone crusader for truth, unlike Alexander Walker, freaking out about David Cronenberg’s Crash and calling for a ban. He also appeared to do things that didn’t involve movies, perhaps unlike (the missed) Philip French, whose work ethic was no less than Stakhanovite. (French’s Thatcherite hours!) Norman didn’t start talking, like Gilbert Adair, with the sort of longing for old movies that one has for exes who got away, bitter at their loss.

And he never quite declined into a burble of approbation. Now that is remarkable, because film critics are lovers. They want the masterpiece so much. The movies – being the most mimetic form and the easiest to muddle with reality – can inspire the most passionate confusion. Hence film critics can watch something OK-ish through a shimmer of tears because it’s not actively terrible and declare it “FUNNY AND MOVING!” all over the side of buses, like a drunken text sent to an entire contacts list.

In short: Norman didn’t burn out. His love did not go sour. But then again, Norman was at his pomp at the tail end of a time of explosive cinema. His top films of 1981 were The Long Good Friday, Raging Bull and Gregory’s Girl. Collins had noted in his teenage diary that this haul was “not too embarrassing”. A lovely way of putting it. No, Andrew, not too embarrassing at all. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania