Barry Norman on life as film critic and a liberal

For many years Adrian Slade has interviewed prominent Liberal Democrats. To mark his recent decision to make his archive of the interview recordings available to researchers and other interested parties, Lib Dem Voice will be running a selection of his write-ups of interviews from over the years. The first is with broadcaster, writer and Liberal Democrat, Barry Norman from 2003.

For British cinemagoers Barry Norman is the personification of film. For twenty-six years, with only a brief break in ‘81/’82 when he fronted ‘Omnibus’ for the BBC, he was the authentic voice of ‘Film’, the regular comment and review programme that his unique style and humour made very much his own. Daily Mail readers of the ‘60s also remember him as the paper’s arts and entertainments editor. Guardian readers remember his weekly column of pithy comment in the ‘70s and listeners to ‘Today’ his time as a co-presenter with John Timpson between ’74 and ’76.

With many other programmes and a number of novels to his name it would be hard not to know of Barry Norman, the consummately effective and appealing communicator. He also happens to be a signed up Liberal Democrat.

Had he always been interested in politics?

“Yes. Since the end of the Second World War. I was about 11 or 12 and I couldn’t quite understand why my parents wanted to vote Labour in that election when the wonderful Churchill had won the war for us. I started thinking about it and decided that what Labour was doing then I had to be in favour of. My parents subsequently reverted to being Tories but I didn’t and I used to have fierce arguments with them.”

He had been a Labour Party member for some years but his first active political involvement was in the ‘70s in Stevenage, where Shirley Williams was his Labour MP. “I helped to build up our very small local party and through that I got to know Shirley well. When, to everyone’s surprise, she lost her seat in ’79 and the Labour Party began to go potty, I left them and joined her in the SDP.”

Barry Norman has never been afraid to hide his political allegiance. “I spoke for Shirley at the Crosby by-election and I also went canvassing for Roy Jenkins at Warrington” he recalls, but he admits to becoming disillusioned by the Steel/Owen split at the time of the SDP/Liberal merger. ‘I dropped out for a couple of years, but I was back into the Liberal Democrats by 1990.”

As a boy he had wanted to go into the film business, in which his father was a successful producer of films like ‘The Cruel Sea’ and ‘Dunkirk’, but it was slump time for the cinema so he chose journalism instead.

“I started with the Kensington News” he says. “Then I went to Johannesburg and worked on The Star, and from there to the Rhodesia Herald in Salisbury. Then back home to the Daily Sketch as a gossip columnist – I’m not particularly proud of that. And on to do arts and entertainment at the Daily Mail, until it merged with the Sketch and they made me redundant seven years later. Quite the nicest thing that ever happened to me!”

Why? Because it led to his weekly column with the Guardian and, in ’72, the first programme in his long television series, ‘Film’. Meanwhile he had also found time to write his first two novels, one a semi-political thriller.

Who were the most interesting people he had interviewed for his ‘Film’ series?

“Oh, by and large, the directors and writers. They tend to be more intelligent than most of the actors. People like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, Joseph L Mankiewicz, but I suppose the person who impressed me most was Laurence Olivier, although I never think he quite conquered the cinema in the way he dominated the stage. He was at his best in his Shakespearean films where he was directing himself. I interviewed him a number of times and had a great affection for him.”

Not all his subjects are so warmly remembered. “ Richard Burton fell asleep in the middle of one my questions, snoring loudly. Fortunately for him it was a taped interview and not live.’’

Had he interviewed any actors, e.g. Warren Beatty, Shirley Maclaine or Vanessa Redgrave, about their publicly held political views?

“On the whole, no. Warren Beatty is an anally retentive man and would never have given anything away and, when I was supposed to interview Vanessa, she didn’t turn up. The only one I had a real political argument with was John Wayne mostly about the Vietnam war. It ended up with him lurching out of his chair to hit me. He was so far over to the right and always shooting his mouth off, you could not fail to discuss politics with him.”

Barry Norman does not have much time for the actors’ political lobby in the States or here. “I suppose they make some difference but I don’t really see why actors’ views should have any more validity than my own or those of the boy who delivers the papers every morning.”

During his time with the ‘Today’ programme his interviewees were mostly politicians and he admits to failing to recognise David Steel when he came to the studio in ’74. “ I thought for a minute he was something to do with a football club. ‘Typical Guardian’ was David’s response” Barry says. However he has a cheerful memory of being given a cigar by an ebullient Jeremy Thorpe and a sherry by a congenial Harold Wilson, while the PM helped himself to a very large scotch.

And what about his co-presenter on ‘Today’?

“In the end I got on very well with John Timpson,” he says, “even though initially, after Robert Robinson had left, John had been complaining that the BBC was bringing traffic wardens off the streets to replace him. ‘I’m your new traffic warden’ I said when I arrived.”

To what extent had his professional life influenced his political views?

“I think my life as a journalist has certainly been an influence. I remember particularly a visit to the States with a French and German journalist. That convinced me, to my surprise, that I had far more in common with Europeans than with English-speaking American journalists. I am a strong supporter of Europe and even more so since the Bush administration came in.”

He is scathing about Blair’s arrogance and failure to listen to people.

“There was a lovely feeling of change in the air in 1997 but look at it now. It’s appalling. Diana (his wife) and I went on the March in February. A million people, totally ignored by the government! And Blair’s ridiculous attachment to Bush is pulling us further and further from Europe.”

What had brought him back into the fold of the Liberal Democrats in 1990?

“I suppose the glib answer is that I wanted something to the left of the Labour Party, although that is even more true now. The Liberal Democrats were offering a much more reasonable and intelligent approach to life and today I feel increasingly comfortable with my original decision.” He admires Charles Kennedy and he is very optimistic about Liberal Democrat prospects.

Would he be willing to take part in a party political broadcast, if asked?

“In principle, certainly,” he replies. Just a personal thought, but, as he might have said, why not?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.