The world according to Barry

Publication: About Time

Following his appearance at the UEA to collect an honorary degree, film critic Barry Norman spoke to Andy Darley about film, politics and the British state of mind.

Summer 1991

Barry Norman. Photo: BBC.
Barry Norman. Photo: BBC.

Somehow it came as no surprise to find that Barry Norman had a knack for the controversial. Armed with nothing more lethal than a woolly pullover and a razor-sharp wit, he sits in your TV screen looking like everybody’s favourite uncle, cheerfully disembowelling the latest film releases. This mix of approachability and biting cynicism was noticeable throughout the conversation but showed most clearly when Norman was talking about politics.

A lot of people talk about the British film industry as if it was at death’s door, fumbling for the key. Barry Norman disagrees. And if he makes no effort to hide its failings he is quick to point out its strengths: “We have all the talent here. We have the directors, the actors, and the technicians; people like Spielberg come over here to make their spectacular movies because our technicians are better than American technicians. And yet we don’t make the big movies. It’s lack of money, lack of courage and lack of writers.”

The situation is the product of a particularly British state of mind. Nobody expects a British film to break box office records the way US movies regularly do. For Norman, the reasons behind this are clear: “We don’t think big enough in this country. The cottage film industry we’ve got thinks in terms of a brief run in the cinema, a bit of video sale, then television sales. If you make it cheaply enough, everybody makes a few bob and maybe we’ll be able to make another film. I don’t think that’s the way to do it. I think what we need here is creative producers. We have people like David Putnam who think bigger than just Britain, he makes pictures not just for Britain but for the World. We need more people like that.”

Before any producer can get to work on a film he needs a script – or even just the outline of a story. And here again the British have their own way of doing things. “We do not have specialist screenwriters in this country. What happens here is that somebody writes a novel, somebody buys the film rights of it and they get another novelist or a playwright to write the script. They don’t get a screenwriter because we haven’t got any. That’s one of the reasons why British films are so insular and don’t travel beyond Britain. It’s because they’re not written by people who truly understand cinema.”

The last part of the story is money. Government sponsorship in France encouraged investment in the film industry by other bodies. The result has been a spate of very fine films; Jean de Florette and Manon des Source for example. Both did very well in foreign markets and such successes make capital easier to arrange for other films, marking a renaissance in the French film industry.

“They don’t give a stuff”

The British government sees things differently and Norman is cynical to the point of disgust at its lack of commitment: “They don’t give a stuff about the cinema. They’re just paying lip service to the idea. If the government really wanted to help the film industry it would get advice on how to and put some money into it – instead it comes up with dribs and drabs here and there. Someone in need of a minor promotion is made film minister for a year then kicked off somewhere else and someone new in need of a promotion is made film minister. The whole thing’s a joke.”

Giles Brandreth, Sebastian Coe and Glenda Jackson all now hold Parliamentary nominations. Would Norman himself ever consider accepting political office? “Do I want to be the Film Minister? God, no, particularly in a Conservative government. This latest Conservative government is the most philistine I can remember in this country. I have, and I think everybody ought to have, the deepest scepticism about politicians, a lot of them I think are only in the Houses of Parliament because they couldn’t hold down a decent job anywhere else. I’m not talking about the people you’ve just mentioned, because they’re people who’ve succeeded very well in another sphere and are clearly doing this out of a sense of total commitment. You look at the average MP though, and he’s lobby fodder.. I would hate the idea, to go sit in there joining people like that. I’ve no desire to be an MP at all.”

Whatever his basic cynicism about politicians Norman did campaign extensively for the Alliance at the last general election, travelling around the country and making personal appearances. Then he dropped out of sight during the merger debate. “I was hugely disillusioned when the Liberals and the SDP stood back and shot each other in the foot. David Owen and David Steel I will not lightly forgive for what they did; I devoted five years of my life – my wife even more so – to working for these buggers, and then they went and ruined it. I lost interest in politics for a while, but now I’m beginning to develop a very large respect for Paddy Ashdown; I think if asked at the next General Election I’ll do what I can for the Liberal Democrats.”

greater choice of films

Returning again to film, the conversation turned towards the direction British cinema is taking. One pointer towards the future is the growth of the multiplex and the multi-screen cinema. In September, the Norwich Odeon completed its conversion from one large to three smaller screens and in doing so one of the largest single auditoria outside of London was lost. While clearly this offers a greater choice of films for the cinemagoer, the news isn’t all good.

“What I do regret is the loss of the very large screen. I don’t know of any multiplex with a really big screen. What worries me is that in future they’re not going to make big films – big I mean in scope and size, big like 2001 or Star Wars. There won’t be any point in making films like that and therefore I think the cinema will have lost out.”

Despite this, Norman feels that the growth of the multiplex is still a positive development. “I think the whole idea of having a base where you can leave your car, go and have a cup of coffee, a drink, a meal, see a film, come out, have another cup of coffee, then see another film is absolutely splendid. And it is working, because cinema-going attendances have doubled in the last five or six years from under 50 million a year to 100 million a year. The way things were going there would probably not have been a film industry at all, because audiences were declining. It’s only audiences that support a film industry – without the audience, you don’t get movies, so you have to decide which is the greater priority. I think the greater priority is to attract people back to watching good films.”