In his years fronting the BBC’s Film programme, Barry Norman became a household name, the authoritative voice on the good, bad and indifferent at the cinema. Having reviewed myriad movies and interviewed a legion of cinema’s most celebrated actors and directors, Barry Norman is both a national treasure and treasure trove of anecdotes, insights and information.
And judging by the audience reaction in the aptly cinema-like theatre space at Headington, there’s still a hunger for Norman’s brand of often barbed but always fluent conversation. Casting stories, facts and opinions like pearls, Norman’s literate delivery is a joy to hear. Now into his seventies, his enthusiasm for film – past and present - is still infectious.
So what about those favourites? Well, even here he demurs: not favourites exactly, but “classics that strike a chord with every generation”. First up is Casablanca, Bogart and Bergman’s classic which almost featured Ronald Reagan in the Bogart role. “It’s the best of all romantic adventure movies”, says Barry, even though the incomplete screenplay left Bergman “bewildered” as to which man – if any – her character would choose in the end.
Next is Gone with the Wind, “the biggest, most hyped” movie of its day, and “a wonderful romantic wallow” in which the burning of Atlanta was created using every unused set the studio had. Switching from romance to adventure, Barry’s goes for Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood - “a visual delight, exuding innocence and conviction”.
Comparing the latter with Pirates of the Caribbean, Norman decries the modern tendency to play swashbucklers as tongue-in-cheek. Then it’s onto the 70s for his final choice – Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, an “urban western, probably the most influential crime thriller of the 70s”. Violent maybe, but certainly not fascist, says Barry, as some critics held at the time.
After the break, Barry holds court to an hour of questions from the audience. For anyone hoping for a full evening of Barry’s scripted views, that may be a disappointment. But the intimate space and Barry’s honest – if perhaps well-rehearsed – answers make for an enjoyable interaction. Ranging from views on The Da Vinci Code book (“terrible”) and film (“better than the book”) to how he almost got hit by John Wayne, Norman was clearly enjoying himself. And signing books in the foyer afterwards, everyone who wanted a chat could have it.
Anyone very familiar with Norman’s output – especially his Memoir and previous tour (An Audience With…) will have heard some of the Q&A answers before. But Barry’s four-film analysis is a masterclass of easy erudition and enjoyment – evidence that his popularity, even ten years on, is still well-justified.
As rehearsed as any actor, Barry Norman sounds like he’s making it up as he goes. But even though his audience may be mostly middle-aged, and fans already, it’s easy to see why he became the nation’s favourite film reviewer.