During a long journalistic career Barry Norman, who has died aged 83, perfected a flair for talking beguilingly about cinema to a mass television audience but in a way that did not make aficionados wince. As the presenter and critic of BBC TV’s original Film 72 through to Film 98, he was knowledgeable without affectation, and he did not seem overawed by the industry’s leading lights.
Outside the BBC, his baggy-eyed good looks led to him being called by some “the thinking woman’s crumpet”. Within it, he was “Breezy Bazza”, and once, by John Wayne, he was labelled “a goddam liberal pinko faggot” – after Norman had laughed out loud at Wayne’s suggestion during a press conference that the US might consider bombing Moscow.
Norman never allowed such snipes to undermine his critical faculties. After trying his best to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger, he told a journalist that the star was “a humourless, self-satisfied clod”. After he had waited an hour and 40 minutes for Madonna to turn up for an interview at the Ritz, Paris, he walked out, saying that he could not have interviewed her politely. But even in such cases, he judged the films with fairness.
He was not intimidated by stardom. In the 1980s, he said of Give My Regards to Broad Street that Paul McCartney had apparently written the film script on the back of a postage stamp.
Barry was the son of the film producer and director Leslie Norman and his wife, Elizabeth. Leslie was with Ealing Studios in the great days of the British film industry: he produced Mandy (1952) and The Cruel Sea (1953), and directed Dunkirk (1958) and The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961). But he believed that the business was crumbling and suggested that his son try newspapers instead. So when Barry left Highgate school in north London, he went to cut his teeth on the Kensington Times. From there he progressed to the Daily Sketch as a reporter and then gossip columnist.
Working on national newspapers, he accumulated some bad memories about which he later wrote. Herbert Gunn, the Sketch’s editor, took him on at a “pittance” at the age of 24, promising a rise after three months. But when he reminded Gunn of the promise, the editor started deriding his work in his daily staff bulletin. Eventually, Norman resigned and joined the Daily Mail as a reporter and, later, show business editor.
Of the circumstances that led him out of print journalism and eventually into television in the 1970s, he wrote in his 1975 book Tales of the Redundance Kid: “I was made redundant by the Daily Mail at about half past nine on the night of Friday 12 March 1971, and I mention this now not from any desire to brag but as a matter of historical fact. I should also like to take this opportunity to thank those responsible, whoever they may have been, for what at the time seemed an unkind – to say nothing of crass and insensitive – act; because from a professional point of view, making me redundant turned out to be quite the nicest thing the Daily Mail did for me in all the 13 years I worked for it.”
A Times executive took him to lunch and asked him to provide a weekly TV review. Having married another journalist, Diana Narracott, in 1957, Norman had a family with two daughters, Samantha and Emma, to support, and accepted £15 a week. He enlarged his wardrobe with confident clothes, and set about freelancing for, among others, the Sunday Mirror and the Observer.
His next job was as what he called “a sort of jobbing leader writer” on the Guardian, until the then editor, Alastair Hetherington, told him they had too many leader writers. The features editor, Peter Preston, appointed him as a columnist and Norman became the first journalist to write under his own name both for the Times and the Guardian – “a record of which I am insufferably proud”, he said later. At the same time, he supplied the storyline for Wally Fawkes’s Flook cartoon in the Daily Mail.
Martin Jackson of the Daily Express, involved in running the television section of the Critics’ Circle, told him that the BBC2 discussion programme Late Night Line-Up was looking for someone to talk about the Circle’s nomination for TV play of the year. Norman obliged, and after that experience, Iain Johnstone, the producer of the BBC’s new show Film 72, asked him if he would like to present it.
He soon established a formula for the programme: Film 72 became Film 73, and so on, year after year, with Billy Taylor’s instrumental rendition of his song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free as the theme music, and in everyone’s mind it was Norman’s show. On BBC Radio 4 he also presented the Today programme (1974-76), and the travel programmes Going Places (1977-81) and Breakaway (1979-80).
He first realised he had become a celebrity when asked for his autograph while browsing in Brent Cross shopping centre, north London. When he briefly added the BBC’s flagship arts programme Omnibus to his portfolio in 1982 (Film 82 being fronted by Johnstone), it was at a time when the BBC had some stern competition from Melvyn Bragg and The South Bank Show on ITV. Norman encountered some criticism, especially from those who believed that he was more “television personality” than critic.
In 1998, while renegotiating his contract with the BBC after doing the film programme for 26 years, Sky TV wooed him with a reported £350,000 salary. Norman said: “What a nice idea, to accept a new challenge at my age,” and stayed till 2001.
He also undertook a number of public responsibilities, serving as a director of the Film Finance Corporation (1980-85) and a governor of the British Film Institute (1996-2001). He was recognised with the Richard Dimbleby Bafta award in 1981 and a special award from the London Film Critics’ Circle in 1994, and four years later was appointed CBE.
In addition to 10 novels he produced some non-fiction books built around his film programmes, including video guides written with Emma. In 2007 he gave his name to a brand of pickled onions on sale in supermarkets, persuaded by a friend who was greatly impressed by the results of a recipe that Norman had received from his mother.
In the course of representing the big screen on its smaller rival for so long and so successfully, he was straightforward but not dismissive about the “hokum” generated by creaking plots, and just occasionally suspended disbelief with a cheery “And why not?” The idea that this was his catchphrase he blamed on Rory Bremner’s voicing of the puppet representing him in the satirical series Spitting Image. Nonetheless, in 2002 it served as the title of his autobiography.
Norman’s wife Diana died in 2011. He is survived by Samantha and Emma, and by three grandsons.
Derek Malcolm writes: There was much grumbling at one time that Barry Norman wasn’t very good at encouraging people to go to see foreign or art films. But if we had known who and what was to follow him after he gave up, any criticism would surely have been muted. The point with Barry was that he was an intelligent everyman, able to get the ordinary filmgoer enthused about his choices. Time and again, people said to me after a somewhat sour review: “Well, Barry Norman liked it, so it should be alright.”
He was very rude about the Marxist semiologists who once commanded the BFI and, in particular, the Edinburgh Film Festival. On the whole they deserved it, being both obscure and pompous at the same time (though sometimes right). Barry never displayed such faults, at his best being thoroughly reliable about the products of the English-language cinema. We missed him when he stopped broadcasting, and we will certainly miss him as a delightful, humorous and intelligent man. Middlebrow he may have been, but it suited his programmes perfectly. And his written work was good, too. He was an admirable and wide-ranging journalist and would have made an excellent cricket correspondent – which is definitely meant as a tribute.
• Barry Norman, journalist and broadcaster, born 21 August 1933; died 30 June 2017
• Dennis Barker died in 2015