Art and Experience: The worlds of film and journalism are mourning Barry Norman, the veteran critic and journalist who became a weekly oracle for British cinemagoers in the era before the internet took off.
Norman, who presented the BBC’s film review show for 26 years before leaving for Sky, and wrote for newspapers including the Observer and the Guardian, died in his sleep on Friday night. He was 83.
He was described as “the master” by Mark Kermode, the Observer’s chief film critic and also a BBC film reviewer, who said on Twitter: “Watching Barry Norman review films was a pleasure, an education, and an inspiration. Wit, knowledge & wry enthusiasm.”
Norman’s literary agency, Curtis Brown, said that he was “the defining voice of film criticism and insightful interviewing of screen legends from both sides of the camera”.
The son of Leslie Norman – a producer and director who worked on The Cruel Sea(1953) and Dunkirk (1958) – and Elizabeth (née Crafford), who was employed in the cutting room at Ealing Studios, Norman had been a gossip columnist at the Daily Sketch and later showbusiness editor at the Daily Mail after working in journalism in South Africa.
He was eventually made redundant and began writing film reviews for the Guardian, before landing his role on the BBC’s Film 1972, where he would stay, with interludes, until 1998.
It was at the BBC where he became a household name, presenting from a comfortable armchair and often dressed in a familiar jumper. A catchphrase, “And why not?”, was used on occasion by Norman and became the title of his autobiography, but took on a life of its own in the mouth of the puppet version of him in the satirical show Spitting Image on ITV.
Known for a diplomatic approach and friendly demeanour towards the Hollywood stars and other actors he interviewed, sparks still sometimes flew. Robert De Niro stormed out of an interview when Norman mentioned in passing that the actor had lobbied hard for the Tom Hanks role in Big.
“I almost came to blows with De Niro,” Norman said later. “He got up my nose, I got up his nose, he stormed out of the room and I chased after him. We both snarled at each other and I thought I’d better let it go. He was a lot younger than me and a lot fitter than me. I could have been in deep trouble.”
Norman also had spats with Mel Gibson and John Wayne, the latter of whom, he said, had “lurched out of his chair with the obvious intention of thumping me” after the pair disagreed about the Vietnam war.
He maintained during an interview in 2002 that he was not soft on people, but that he did interviews only with people whose work he liked.
Speaking in 2001, Norman described how times had changed since he began as a TV critic. “When I started nearly 30 years ago, people were asked to go on television because it was felt that they could bring some sort of knowledge to what they were discussing, and because they could speak in complete sentences, which is getting increasingly rare,” he said. “I think the difference now is that people go on television because they want to be celebrities and that seems to be an empty ambition. I do like to feel I’ve contributed something, as well as just sitting there.”
Norman also made several documentary series for the BBC, and was the co-host of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Jonathan Ross, who took Norman’s place as the BBC programme’s presenter, said on Twitter: “Very sad to hear that Barry Norman has left us. A great critic and a lovely, lovely man.”
A statement from Norman’s daughters, Samantha and Emma, described him as “remarkable”, adding: “He had a great life, a wonderful marriage and an enviable career.”
Diana Norman, whom he married in 1957, died of heart failure in 2011 at the age of 77.