Barry Norman

By Jason Solomons

Instead of the usual film review this week, I thought I’d reflect on why I’m here at all. like many of my generation of film critics, I can honestly say I owe it to Barry Norman. It was Barry who, on learning of his growing illness, recommended me for the post at The Lady. ‘Young Solomons’, he always called me – a veiled reference to Mel Brooks, I felt. I mention this because last week, it was Barry’s memorial service and I, Young Solomons, was honoured to be asked to give a speech at it.

I’ve been struck, in the months since Barry’s passing last year, by how many of my colleagues have confessed to me that Barry was their childhood hero. Many now do the job because of Barry. His style, wit and long-running presence on TV screens made them aware that being a film critic could actually be a job, if you did it well enough. Looking at those who attended the memorial service, it was clear Barry had just as important an influence on filmmakers as on critics. There was Dame Maggie Smith, John Gordon Sinclair, and award-winning directors like Sir Alan Parker, Lord David Puttnam and John Madden. also there was comedian Barry Cryer, and Rory Bremner, whose impression of Barry on Spitting image coined the ‘and why not?’ catchphrase that followed Barry throughout his career.

And when I talked about Barry for an in Memoriam section at our London Critics’ Circle Film Awards in January, I was amazed by the number of nominees – not just critics – who came up to me afterwards to outline the debt they, too, owed Barry, how important his reviews could be to the success of their film, how his tastes shaped their own styles and ideas. Mostly, though, what came out of that service was simple: Barry was a lovely bloke, who looked after those he liked and who was fair and generous, encouraging and warm. I was honoured to give that speech – here’s an edited extract.

As critics, Barry showed us all how it should be done. He was charming, erudite, enthusiastic; he was knowledgeable and opinionated but never conceited or pompous. He smiled and twinkled and was witty, even as he gently crushed a producer’s dreams. He was, for the most part, fair. He could be grumpy, but as the son of a director, he understood filmmakers, so he knew what movies could and should be.

 

This was why the households of the nation allowed Barry to sit in their living rooms with them, letting them know that if they ever did want to get off their sofas, there were some films they might fancy. He became a member of the family, the one who knew about movies, who’d even met a few stars but never bragged about it, even if, after a few glasses of wine, he did go on a bit about Michelle Pfeiffer (‘i didn’t have a crush on her, honestly...’)

You see, being part of a family, was what was really important to Barry. and here we are today, surrounded by Barry’s family: friends, colleagues, acquaintances, the kind of inner circle that expands when you’re a public figure to
many people who felt like they knew Barry, because he’d talked about their work, praised it or disagreed with it, supported it or said ‘not for me’, but also because they feel like they’ve sat with Barry and had a chat. He was a mate, a mentor and a master, often all at the same time.

Anyone lucky enough to have chatted to Barry in real life will know what fun that could be, and how wide the conversation might range – from languages to literature, sport and politics and food and drink. I remember him at Cannes, where he always turned slightly pink, to match the rosé wine. I remember him at our Circle awards, chatting to Lord Attenborough or Quentin Tarantino.

You can tell a lot about someone by their favourite films: I remember Barry loving Bringing Up Baby and epics and Westerns. He liked blokes’ classics like Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia but loved British comedies like Gregory’s Girl, or Hollywood gems such as Ninotchka, or musicals such as Kiss Me Kate. He loved airplace! and paths of Glory. HeLubitschubitsch and Wilder, Eastwood and John Wayne. He liked films with heart, soulful and emotional, nothing too fancy or too clever-clever. Films where good triumphed over evil, where men got the job done and were rewarded with a kiss.

So I guess this is a salute and a kiss from the rest of us critics because Barry sure got the job done and was rewarded with a wonderful life. Criticism, like life, is a balance – and Barry got both just right.

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