Friday 30 October 2015

Britain is a country which once made and has now lost its old and greatest film critic, Philip French

Philip, who has died at the age of 82 after serving for 50 years as the Observer's film critic, watched more than 14,000 movies, wrote six books on the subject and received an OBE for his 'Services to Film' was made and inspired by his father's enthusiasm for film and the solace and escape the cinema gave him, as a boy, from the bleakness of the Second World War. It took him into a world of hush and semi-darkness, where his stutter and alopecia counted for nought, of commissionaires with waxed moustaches, usherettes with ice-creams and, as he remembered, the 'overwhelming' experience 'when the curtains parted and the lights went down the immense close-ups of the characters, at once gigantic and intimate, the abrupt switches of location, the swirling action seen from so many different angles.'

What you possibly didn't know about Philip, that he :

was born Neville Philip French in Birkenhead, Cheshire in 1933 and grew up in a suburb of Liverpool, the son of Bessie and John, who had been a dockworker at the age of 13 before becoming an insurance agent and at the age of 4 had just started school in Leicester, where his peripatetic father was based, and recalled his parents 'chatting over breakfast about how they'd spent the previous evening. They were talking about 'the pictures' and I was intrigued. I had never seen a film or heard of television, we didn't have a telephone and our only direct contact with the outside world came from the radio in the sitting room. I bombarded my father with questions about 'the pictures'. He was worn down by my persistence. Dad gave in and took me to the cinema that very afternoon.'

* was 'invited to moonlight as Deputy Film Critic at the Observer, the true beginning of my career as a writer' after being asked, by the newly-appointed Arts Editor of the paper, Richard Findlater, knowing that film was one of his passions,
to write a trial column and 'Returning home, I told my wife about the meeting. She said: 'Well, you've seen this week's films, why don't you write it tonight?' So I did - on Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly Bryan Forbes' The L-Shaped Room and How the West Was Won That trio said something about the excitement of movies at the time: great films coming from Europe (Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, the French New Wave) as well as from Asia, a new realism in the British cinema and the western entering its last great decade.'

* in 1963, in one of his first columns for the Observer, went to see The Damned a Joseph Losey 'Hammer' movie and wrote an enthusiastic review of his significance and saw 'People went to see it and it was reviewed elsewhere and United Artists, encouraged by these reviews, brought it into the West End. I got a letter suddenly from Joseph Losey. I'd never met him. First of all I thought it was a practical joke but it was a genuine letter. "Thank you," he said, "for praising it and not for overpraising it" and "This has changed the situation for myself and my associates" meaning it prepared the public for a small film 'on a small budget with everybody deferring their payments, a film called The Servant which is one of the finest films ever made in this country.'

* recorded that, at the age of 39 in 1972 : 'driving into London from Stansted after some months of teaching in Texas, and passing two of my favourite cinemas, both closed down during my absence. One was the magnificent Astoria, Finsbury Park, beloved of John Betjeman' and 'The second was the Tolmer, across the Euston Road from Warren Street station. It reeked of cigarette smoke and disinfectant and always showed double bills. To me, all ports are different, all airports much the same. Cinemas have become as anonymous as airports.'
* in 1973 was finally offered the Movie Column at the Observer on a permanent basis and set about carrying out his project : 'First, it was to bridge the gap between arthouse and so-called popular cinema, to be equally rigorous about both, but neither to revere film as art nor despise it as commerce. Second, I wanted to find a style and language that would encourage readers to look at film as a distinctive medium that combined all the other arts while realising itself as the great new art of the 20th century.'

* for several years kept an unsigned, crudely written note pinned above his desk. 'It attacked me for having given away the plot of some now long forgotten thriller and began: 'You cunt! You fucked up my weekend!' It stood beside an autographed photograph of Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, walking thoughtfully together in front of the Taj Mahal, taken during a trip I made with them to Agra from a festival in Delhi in the 1970s. When I wonder whether writing about the cinema is worthwhile, I look up to that photograph for reassurance.'

* said, in 2008 at the age of 75 : 'I love seeing movies as much as I ever did. What have I done these past 70 years, apart from sit through around 14,000 films and be paid for doing what I like? I may have helped a few careers (Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Walter Hill, Terence Davies, Bertrand Tavernier, Neil Jordan, Christopher Nolan) and encouraged readers to think about the contributions of cinematographers, editors, composers, production designers. I hope I've contributed to creating a climate that looks at cinema and its history in a more comprehensive manner' and five years later on his 80th birthday retired as film critic for the Observer and said "I think one of the key rules to learn in the art of party-going is when to leave with dignity."

* in 2013 gave one of his last recorded interviews at the Bristol 'Festival of Ideas' at Watershed, where he discussed his life's work and the films that had influenced him the most : and spoke of  Kind Hearts and Coronets "It is beautifully lit by Douglas Slocombe who was actually a hundred a couple of months ago. I met him last week and he's still in great form. Unfortunately he can no longer see but he certainly has all his marbles if not his lens."

* once said of Sean, Patrick and Karl :  "All my sons love movies. I started taking them around the age of four. I would take them to films I thought were quality, so I made sure that by the age of five or six they had seen the complete works of the Marx Brothers. They often tease me about when I took them to see a double bill of two westerns – Hombre and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – and quizzing them afterwards to make sure that they had been convinced that Hombre was a much better film than Butch Cassidy!"

also said :
"From time to time you may pull your punches, but not in the next round. You have to be truthful."

                 What better obituary might an old film critic have ?

1 comment:

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