Barry Norman talks classic film

Andrew ClarkeBarry Norman was the doyen of film critics for a quarter of a century and he remains as passionate as ever. ANDREW CLARKE spoke to him about classic movies and the art of good film criticism.Andrew Clarke

Barry Norman was the doyen of film critics for a quarter of a century and he remains as passionate as ever. ANDREW CLARKE spoke to him about classic movies and the art of good film criticism.

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For more than 25 years, Barry Norman was the face of British cinema-going. His instantly recognisable delivery, and his catchphrase 'and why not?' - which he still maintains was a Rory Bremner invention - made him the nation's favourite film critic.

Although Barry has been off our screens for eight years now, he likes to keep abreast of the recent releases - 'film is in my blood' - and likes to tour the country giving audiences a glimpse of the behind the scenes stories surrounding some of cinema's greatest moments.

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He recently visited this region to give a talk during which he revealed the inside story on four classics Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Dirty Harry.

'The films are chosen at random,' he says. 'They are not necessarily the best films ever made or even my own favourite films but they are all great movies, absolute classics in their own way, and I chose them because they each have a good story to tell.'

He said that for Gone With The Wind he had to be quite disciplined as there was enough drama off screen to fill an entire evening on its own. The film chewed up and spat out four directors - two of which also worked on The Wizard of Oz shooting at the same time - while the hunt for the lead character Scarlet O'Hara went on for more than 18 months.

Every leading actress in Hollywood tested for the part, producer David O'Selznick eventually cast Paulette Goddard in the role, had expensive colour wardrobe tests shot and then replaced her with Vivien Leigh, the unknown British wife of Laurence Olivier, after The Women's League of America objected to Goddard because she was 'living in sin' with Charlie Chaplin.

The irony was that, although Paulette had earlier been Chaplin's live-in lover, by the time she was cast as Scarlet she and Chaplin had married.

Barry said that both Gone With The Wind and Casablanca broke all the accepted laws of classic film-making in that you don't start shooting until you have a script and a cast.

'Casablanca turned out to be a great film but it shouldn't have done because everything was against it. They didn't have a script, the star turned them down, and they cast a relatively unknown Humphrey Bogart, who had only really played heavies up until that point, as a last minute replacement. It shouldn't have worked but it did and made a star of Bogart.'

Speaking to Barry Norman it is easy to feel the sense of authority that comes across as he talks. When I casually ask who was the most impressive person he interviewed or the person that he was most pleased to have got to talk to, he says, quite matter of factly, that having been raised in a film-industry family, he has never been star-struck.

'Having been brought up surrounded by actors since I was a young boy I knew that actors were just working stiffs like the rest of us. I always accorded them the honour of treating them as equals, I felt that was the least I could do.'

His father was producer and film director Leslie Norman responsible for such films as The Cruel Sea, the award-winning Mandy and the John Mills epic Dunkirk.

However, in answer to my question he says that writers and directors have always given him more pleasure than interviewing actors.

'Martin Scorsese was terrific as was Billy Wilder. I could sit and talk to both of them all day. They both knew film and the film industry inside out. They both loved film as does Steven Spielberg, I always enjoy talking to him. William Goldman, the screenwriter, the man who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a wonderful man to talk to.'

The most difficult part of his job was not cajoling answers out of the stars but persuading the nervous PR people that he wasn't going to perform a character assassination if they weren't in the room to maintain control.

'I always refused to do interviews with the PR people present. I wasn't going to clear questions before hand or not ask certain questions and after a while they stopped insisting because they knew I wasn't going to ask who are they sleeping with? That's the sort of question stars don't like, but I was always just interested in their work. I was never interested in the gossip side of things and never saw that as part of my remit.

'I was there as a film reviewer and I wanted to talk to them about their work. I found that once they realised that you wanted to talk seriously, then they opened up and it wasn't difficult to get beneath the surface and get a glimpse of the real person.

'I remember having several conversations with Martin Scorsese and he was an absolute joy. You don't really ask questions of Marty, you wind him up and off he goes. He was absolutely riveting.

'You could also be very frank about things. For example, I told him that his Cape Fear was one of the better remakes but was let down by the end in which Robert De Niro takes an unconscionable time to die. He agreed. He said: 'Yeah, I wish I hadn't done that, it was the Hollywood ending.'

Bizarrely, Barry Norman claims being made redundant, in 1971, from his job as showbiz editor at the Daily Mail, was the best thing that ever happened to him. It meant he was free to dabble in shows like Late Night Line-Up which then directly led to BBC producer Iain Johnstone, and later Times film reviewer, offering him a temporary slot as presenter on a new film programme Film 72 - a temporary job which lasted until 1998.

It was clearly a job he has enjoyed. During his 26 years at the BBC he also made three series of The Hollywood Greats and a history of Hollywood called Talking Pictures. At the dawn of the new Millennium he issued a book The 100 Best Films of the Century, remarkable because it included, at the time, recent releases like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.

So are there any movies released in the last ten years that he would be tempted to include, if the book were to be re-issued today?

'There are quite a few actually. I would certainly put Gladiator in there along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and much more recently I would put Good Night, Good Luck, the George Clooney movie which tackled the McCarthy era witchunts, which I thought was absolutely brilliant.

'Brokeback Mountain is another film that deserves a place because it is a groundbreaker. It was one of the first Hollywood movies which came out and said that homosexuality is not such an evil thing. And I think that because it said it so outspokenly is why it didn't win the Oscar that year. They gave it to Crash instead which although it had a nice message that racism is rather nasty, it is something that we really ought to know by now.'

Mention of George Clooney leads into a discussion about multi-talented faces and names that perhaps we need to watch. Barry points out that few people who saw Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide or as The Man With No Name in Siergo Leonne's spaghetti westerns would have guessed that 30 years down the road he would be making films like The Changeling, Invictus or Mystic River.

'Eastwood really came out of left field. He was essentially a western actor, probably the best western actor since John Wayne, but that's how Hollywood and the world saw him. Then he branched out into the Dirty Harry series and at the same time he released his first film as a director Play Misty For Me and that was a revelation.

'It was superbly directed and then all of a sudden, everyone realised that this was someone they had to take notice of. Some critics had derided him as a western actor but he quickly revealed himself to be a very good actor and an even better director.'

Elsewhere Barry Norman believes that Scottish director Danny Boyle, the man who gave us Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire still has some surprises up his sleeve. 'It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next. You can't get two more different movies than Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire and he handled them both with delicate precision.'

All of which leads us to the age old question: 'What makes a good film critic?' Opinions are ten-a-penny in pub discussions and car journeys home from the cinema. So what gives a film critic his authority?

Barry answers in a heartbeat. 'You have got to have seen a lot of films. The basic difference between the professional critic and the amateur is that the professional gets to see far more films than the amateur. It's all very well for someone to go along to a cinema and say that's the best thriller I have ever seen but if you have only ever seen five then it doesn't mean a lot. But, the guy saying it has seen 100 then it does mean something.

'Film reviewing is subjective, that's why you have to be consistent. If a film genre or a performer was not to my taste, I would come clean and say it up front.

'There are no absolutes in criticism. If it works for you then it is a good film. Many critics gave Richard Curtis' film Love Actually a hard time. I thought it was a very good film. They accused him of not living in the real world but from what I could see it was recognisably somebody's world. It might not be their world but I suspect neither is Mike Leigh's world and they don't give him a hard time.'