TELEVISION / Long Runners: No 1: FILM 93

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The Independent Culture
Age: 22. Started as Film 71, on BBC1, but in the South-east only; it was Film 75 before it went national.

Who's responsible? It was devised by Iain Johnstone, now film editor of the Sunday Times. The first presenter was the late Jacky Gillott, a print journalist. Barry Norman, another print person, lately made redundant from his job as entertainments editor of the Daily Mail, appeared as a guest presenter in 1972, and became the regular frontman a year later. BBC insiders were horrified: 'he broke all the rules of TV presentation,' says Bruce Thompson, producer of Film 93 - 'he talked too fast, didn't pause for breath, his sentences were too long'.

Frequency: weekly (Mon about 11pm, repeated Tues about 6pm, minus any 18-rated clips), but only for 40 weeks a year. It disappears from Wimbledon to mid-September.

Audience: anything between 2.5 and 5 million on Mon, up to 3 million for the repeat. Much depends on the lateness of the hour. 'A vexed question,' says Thompson, who'd like it to be at 10.20pm on a Tuesday, not 11.10pm on Monday.

Formula: when you change your name every year, you don't want to change much else. Barry reviews three or four new films, jokily, blokily, with a clip or two from each. Runs down a Top 10 or two (videos, films or US films), doing prerecorded one-liners over more clips. Gives some Movie News and perhaps introduces a feature by his man in New York, Tom Brook, he of the soupy moustache and rather soppy voice. Holds a competition. Then says goodnight, and introduces one last clip.

Hallmarks: Barry's sweaters - though he shocked the faithful 13 days ago by sporting a grey flannel suit. Barry's habit of saying 'And why not?' - though this may happen more often on Spitting Image than on Film 93 itself. Barry's habit of saying 'You could say that (this was a hoary old chestnut, or whatever) - and you'd be right, but . . .'

A nagging question: Barry's hair - is it a toupee, or does it just look like one? Archive tapes suggest the latter: it was just the same in 1972, only brown and long.

Anything irritating? Barry's penchant for working the England cricket team into his script, perhaps?

Worse than irritating? Just one thing. Barry's interview technique. Sit him in front of a star and the sardonic observer becomes a sycophant. His encounter with Michelle Pfeiffer last year was a masterclass in ingratiation, with queries along the lines of 'is it hard being that beautiful?'

Theme tune: a cracker, a suavely catchy jazz-piano piece by Billy Taylor, less suavely entitled 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free'.

Little-known fact: In 1982 Norman went off to present Omnibus. Film 82 was left with a rotating series of stand-ins, including Tina Brown, later to edit Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. She was wooden, frosty and not very amusing. Fortunately, Norman wasn't much good at Omnibus, either.

Is it powerful? Thompson says no, 'though we can help a small European film': when he took the unprecedented decision to lead the programme with Cyrano de Bergerac, he thinks it may have added to the box office. But let's ask a film PR person, John Anderson, head of marketing at Columbia. 'I don't think any individual critic has a great deal of influence on popular film-going. On art-house, maybe.' So let's ask a leading art-house PR. 'Barry's too mainstream to influence our audience much,' says one.

Rivals: Clapperboard, Saturday Night at the Movies, Moviewatch, you name it, Film 71-93 has seen it off.

How come? The view from there: 'It's down to Barry's opinion,' says Thompson. 'People trust him. His verdicts tend to match theirs.' The view from here: it works because it does something television is oddly reluctant to do - it takes a standard newspaper idea (the critic, with a well- defined personality, trenchant views and a weekly platform) and puts it on the screen - which has the undeniable advantage of being able to show clips. And Norman, though easily mocked, is a class act: fluent, literate, distinctive.

Is it good? It's middling. Middle-class, middle-aged and middle-brow, Barry seldom surprises. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. His views are so reliable, you can use them to work out yours. And why not?

(Photograph omitted)

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