top cx logo
cx logo
Explorearrow down
search icon
arrow down

I said no to sex kitten Bardot

Professional deadlines came before star's invitation to play poker in hotel suite, says film critic Barry Norman

BARRY Norman is best-known for the BBC’s Film programme which he presented for 26 years, with a weekly round-up of what was showing at the cinema, reviews and interviews.

Were you always passionate about films?

Yes, my father was a film director and going to the movies was what we did as a family. Movies were in the blood.

What was the first film you loved?

Before the war, we had a maid who would take me to Saturday matinees and I got hooked on westerns. Every one ended with “to be continued…” so we came back the next week. But the first film I really remember was They Died with their Boots on, with Errol Flynn as General Custer. I became a big fan of his. It was only later I realised what a bunch of lies the film was - Custer was not a hero at all.

Does it matter if a historic film is accurate?

I'm not sure. I had a huge argument with my wife, who is a historical novelist, about Elizabeth, which I thought was terrific and recommended. She came back furious saying there were so many distortions. I knew there were but I accepted them while I was watching. However I think that probably if you are dealing with history you should try to stick as close to the facts as you possibly can.

When you went into journalism did you have the ambition of writing about movies?

No, I went into to see where it would take me. I got into writing about movies by accident and by virtue of my birth. I was on the Daily Mail and the showbusiness reporter resigned and they figured through my father I would have good contacts. They were right, I did have the entrée.

You used to cover Cannes?

Yes, I enjoyed it enormously - I hated the Oscars. We used to go to Hollywood and I'd sit in a studio with a couple of guests.

The Oscars would be broadcast live to Britain and I would crop up in commercial breaks discussing what was going on, with my guests. That was nerve-wracking because it went on for a very long time and you had to be very alert - but then I was expected to go down to the biggest party and interview the winners as they turned up.

It made for a very long, hard evening and sometimes in March in LA it was freezing. I wasn’t able to enjoy the occasion at all.

The lovely thing about Cannes is that it’s small - it’s one end of La Croisette to the other and that's it - and every year all the people we wanted to talk to to arrange interviews were in exactly the same hotels and office suites. We knew precisely where we were.

We worked out early on that the worst thing to do at Cannes is to accept invitations to late-night parties. PR people would always be coming up and saying “are you coming to our party on the yacht at 23.00? Sylvester Stallone will be there and Michelle Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone and Spielberg” - and when you are new you believe them and you are stuck on this yacht for two hours and you find you are surrounded by all the people you have been trying to avoid.

We realised none of these people are ever at these parties and we avoided them and stopped work about six or seven every night unless there happened to be a nice reception on the beach. Then we’d go to Gaston Gastounette in the Old Port for dinner. I miss Cannes, but don’t miss the Oscars. I've not been for a few years now - there’s no point going unless you have full accreditation. You might see some film in a backstreet cinema but you won’t get in to see anything good.

Did you see last year’s Palme d’Or winner The Class (Entre les Murs - about a secondary school with many pupils from immigrant backgrounds)?

I thought it was very good and deserved to win. I think there are some kinds of film the French do better than anyone else. Another is romantic comedies - there is often a kind of wry cynicism about them that the Americans and Brits never equal.

What are some of your favourites?

Truffaut's films, for example, or Chabrol’s. French films ooze sophistication whereas American ones tend to ooze naivety. If you go back to A Bout de Souffle (Godard, 1960), for example - it was so different, it knocked everyone sideways. I think the French New Wave had a huge impact on the cinema worldwide.

Godard now does polemics and I can't be bothered with his films, but in the early days he was one of a wonderful bunch of directors who all seemed to come along at the same time - Eric Rohmer was another, he was a perfect example of sophisticated romantic movies. Day for Night (La Nuit américaine - Truffaut, 1973) is another favourite of mine, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie - Luis Bunuel, 1972) - which was made in France with a French cast.

What impressed me most in that was Stéphane Audrane, who to me typifies what everyone thinks Parisians are like, but the only one who was really that gorgeous and sophisticated was her. She was a knock-out in that.

If you go back further, France was influential in the development of cinema. The Lumière Brothers gave the first public showing in 1896. They showed the train arriving at La Ciotat and people going to work in a factory, and an episode with a guy messing around with a hosepipe - l'Arroseur Arrosé - hilarious comedy because the hosepipe turned on him - everybody fell about with laughter - I don't think you'd get away with that now but nobody had seen anything like it. People in the audience were totally startled as the train came towards them.

Then Hollywood took the spotlight...

During the First World War Europeans had rather different things on their minds, but even so European influence continued into the 1920s, but the coming of sound really threw the power into Hollywood's hands because of the size of the market for English-language movies. So the cinema’s voice became and English one, with an American accent.

Some people say there is a tendency for only highbrow films to be rewarded in France. Do they take things too seriously?

Continentals take cinema much more seriously than the Americans or British and perhaps it can go too far sometimes. The Cahiers du Cinema (film magazine) took up all kinds of bizarre directors and lionised them - people that were ignored in America and Britain. But at least they realise film is not just entertainment and is a hugely important art medium.

In America they see it more as entertainment and a work of art comes out every once in a while almost by accident. Having said that perhaps that is always true - if you sit down and say ‘this will be a really artistic piece of work,’ I think you are doomed to failure.

So you like all kinds of films on the whole?

There are certain genres I like - westerns, thrillers and comedies. I am not so keen on science fiction or horror, but if it’s a good science fiction or horror I am with it all the way. It's just bad films I don’t like.

Which recent French films did you enjoy?

I particularly like the Edith Piaf film - La Môme. It was extremely well done and the lead actress was terrific. I don’t go to the cinema nearly as much now. I don’t regret not being on television but I do regret not knowing precisely what's going on in cinema as I did.

There was a time when it looked as though every French film had to have Gérard Depardieu - and recently it seems like it is Daniel Auteuil. What do you think of them?

For a while it seemed it was forbidden to make a film in France without Depardieu. It seems like there is always somebody like that but I think a great deal of them. Depardieu’s Cyrano was terrific. It was just going to be shown in a few arthouse cinemas because British audiences don’t speak French and don’t go to the cinema to read, so they don’t see foreign films, but I thought it was so good that every week at the end of my programme, for about six weeks, in the section where I talked about films on release, I would say “you must go and see Cyrano de Bergerac,” and at the end of the year the distributors thanked me and said it had been a huge success and got far wider viewing than they expected, largely thanks to me.

I thought that made my job worthwhile - I had put people in touch with a really good movie they would not have gone to see. I was thrilled.

So you don’t think it can be a shame that certain actors seem to hog the limelight?

It just happens. They are fashionable and people like them. My wife thought Depardieu was terribly sexy, though I couldn’t see it myself.

Do you have any special memories about interviews you did with French stars?

By and large because I did a mainstream programme on BBC1 they weren’t very interested in foreign films though I insisted on doing them. I had chats with Depardieu on the beach at Cannes but they came out very short on the programme. He was charming but we did it in franglais - him speaking a bit of English and me a bit of French.

Later on he did some movies in America and his English improved, but at that time he was becoming popular in the UK but hadn’t made it in America. We got on well and I liked him a lot.

I have a wonderful memory of flying from Paris to London with Brigitte Bardot when she was THE sex kitten. I had been sent to Paris to interview her and she was gorgeous. I hung around and never got to see her, then her agent said she was flying to London, we will book you on and you can sit with her. I got on the plane with Bardot and every man hated me. We sat and chatted and she was a poppet.

A few days later she was doing her first day of shooting in London and all the showbiz journalists turned up. It started raining and they said “it’s a wrap, we can’t do any more today.” Bardot said to us - “what are we going to do now? Tell you what, let’s go back to my hotel and play poker,” and, idiots that we were, we all said: “Oh I'd love to, but got to get back, I've got a deadline.” Imagine that! I should have said “sod the deadline” and gone back to play poker in her hotel suite. I would have had a much better story.

Do French films have a healthy future?

I think they always will because there is the great advantage of not sharing a language with America. British people would rather see American films, but I don't think that is true here. Also the French government has always supported the industry better than in Britain.

New Labour has helped financially - though not as much now as it did initially - but the government has never really been interested in the industry as much as the French, which goes back to what we said about how the cinema is not taken as seriously. It should always be taken seriously, but never solemnly.

You have been branching out from cinema lately, I hear?

Yes, I have a book about cricket coming out - Barry Norman's Book of Cricket - I am charging around publicising that - and I have a range of pickled onions. I don’t think I would be able to break into the French market with those... We have pickled eggs, gherkins and shallots coming out later in the year. It’s not a huge market, it’s pennies, but it’s fun to come from a new direction that people don’t expect.

Photo: credit Woman's Weekly/Rex Features

Resident or second-home owner in France?
Benefit from our daily digest of headlines and how-to's to help you make the most of life in France
By joining the newsletter, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
See more popular articles
The Connexion Help Guides
featured helpguide
Income Tax in France 2023 (for 2022 income)*
Featured Help Guide
- Primarily aimed at Britons, covers pensions, rent, ISAs, shares, savings and interest - but also contains significant general information pertinent to readers of other nationalities - Overview of online declarations + step-by-step guide to the French printed forms - Includes updates given automatically after this year's site opened
Get news, views and information from France