Drunk lunches and sober sandwiches: how the Guardian’s job as a film critic has changed | Membership
Ffrom 1999 to today, I was the Guardian’s chief film critic; before that it was the legendary Derek Malcolm who held the post since the early 1970s, and now at 89, is far from retired, regularly attending festivals including Venice and Goa, and contributing to the Sky Arts Discovering Film show.
How has the profession of film critic evolved between his time and mine? I went downstairs for lunch and a comparison of notes with Derek at his home in Deal, Kent, where he lives with his wife, historian and journalist Sarah Gristwood.
How did Derek enter the world of movie criticism? “I was on the Gloucestershire Echo and wrote to Brian Redhead, who was the Manchester Guardian’s arts editor, to ask if I could write about the Cheltenham Literary Festival. He said I could send my article and it was published, and he told me to come and see it. I knew Redhead was a socialist and if he knew I was in Eton and Oxford I would never have a job. So he asked me where I was going to school and I said, ‘Somewhere near Slough. I ended up as a designer then called in London where I was the late night sub and the only one who could read Neville Cardus’ reviews [the renowned music critic and cricket correspondent] who submitted his handwritten copy. I became editor of letters and – because I had been an amateur jockey in the 1960s – a racing correspondent.
“I was also the assistant theater critic for Philip Hope-Wallace, who was happy to send me to review Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. I became a movie critic because the editor fired the current critic, Richard Roud, for writing a one-word review of The Sound of Music – he just wrote “No”. Only that.”
My own route to work is in some ways as haphazard as that. I did a diploma in English and then a doctorate in 17th century English prose. Then I decided academia was not for me and accepted a job in the Diary section of the Evening Standard, where I ended up doing almost everything: leaders, columnists, theater critics. , television reviews, book reviews, except – oddly enough – the cinema. Comments.
In the 1997 Tony Blair Cool Britannia general election, editor Max Hastings asked me to write a falsified version of the diaries of Alan Clark, the dishonest Tory MP. Clark continued; he went to court and I made a kind of story as a first satirist whose subject had actually sued him for “false facts”. The case amused Guardian executive Ian Katz (now Channel 4’s director of programs) who had a great love of evil, and he recommended me for the post of film critic to editor Alan Rusbridger on the basis that a new voice was needed. . So I had never had any formal training in cinema. “No, me neither!” interrupts Derek.
So how has the workload changed? I have to review six films a week, deciding on the main review, which will be 600-700 words and the other 300 each. It sounds a lot like Derek: “We only had three or four a week, and sometimes it was only two!” And I did not see the films separately: it was a continuous summary column that could be 800 words, although sometimes double. But Derek for a few years in the early 1980s combined his work as a film critic with that of artistic director of the London Film Festival, which was a huge task to take on.
Before Covid, much of my workday was spent in Soho, central London, going to small screening rooms, where films are shown in advance to critics and reporters. And until recently, doing that was one of the last ties to the racy, seedy, and sleazy side of Soho itself. But Derek was appalled when I told him that some of the most famous screening rooms were now gone. The iconic 20th Century Fox building in Soho Square has disappeared as a victim of the Disney takeover, as has the handsome Columbia building in Golden Square.
And the mood of these daytime screenings has periodically become more pragmatic and sober. When I first started, it wasn’t entirely unusual for producers to invite you over for a sumptuous lunch with wine – Ismail Merchant did it after a screening of his film version of The Golden Bowl.
But Derek tells me these things were a lot more common in his day. “We had the ‘Carry On’ lunches! After the press release of each Carry On film, [the producer] Peter Rogers invited us to L’Escargot in Greek Street for a lavish lunch with the entire cast who would bitterly complain about the horror of the film, that they only had one take for each scene, to how horrible the pay was and they end up bickering with each other. However, I have to say that the reviews were often better after a good lunch.
Derek and I see each other a lot in Cannes, and he’s horrified by the fast-paced, hyper-instantaneous business of festival reviews now. In his day, and in the early years of mine, it was a more thoughtful and fun affair to go see those new international films and ruminate on them without needing to write a lot. Now it all has to be written, tweeted, Facebook, Instagrammed, and YouTube (I have all of these accounts plus my own YouTube channel) – because online movie reviews drive traffic to the site. I find it pretty exciting but for Derek it’s a bit neurotic: “Oh no. Although for a few years I produced, with Sarah, a daily Cannes page for the international edition which was printed in Marseille.
One thing I have in common is doing onstage events sponsored by The Guardian. At the Toronto Film Festival recently, I hosted a Q&A with Glenn Close and another with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films. Derek himself has presided over stage events with legendary names like Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly and Clint Eastwood. “I was vilified by Time Out for doing this,” Derek says. Because they were nerds? I ask. “No – because they were jealous!”
I ask Derek what he thinks about the acrimony online on Twitter which is often the climate in which the debate takes place. He doesn’t care because he’s no longer on Twitter. But he adds: “I see myself as a ‘reviewer’ rather than a ‘critic’. As a “reviewer”, I’m fine. I know what he means. Sometimes it is more disarming and modest to announce yourself as a critic. But often you have to shoulder the burden of being a critic, making statements and judgments that will anger and even infuriate the filmmakers themselves. And what Derek and I also have in common is the awareness that a good review, for a young filmmaker (especially a female filmmaker, a filmmaker of color, or any filmmaker who is otherwise marginalized from the mainstream) will make all the difference and it has always been the critic’s job to seek out talent – even more so in the digital age where moviegoers can feel overwhelmed with content.
“How long do you think you’re going to continue?” Derek asks me, towards the end of our meeting. I answer, honestly, that I don’t know: as long as the newspaper and the readers have me. And Derek responds, “I retired because I couldn’t stand mediocre movies: that was the secret to my lack of success. And I have been a less generous critic than you. It may be true. But I found myself thinking about how much we have in common.