When critics become entertainers

Have we reached the point where we find critics more interesting than their subject?

THE NEWSREADER on the BBC main bulletin assumed so lugubrious a voice that I thought for a moment Barry Norman had died, rather than just passed to the Other Side. The BBC's most prominent film critic, the voice of multiplex-goers everywhere, has taken the Murdoch shilling, and from now on will be dispensing his wisdom to Sky TV's empire of pay and display.

A thrilling moment all round, I suppose, for historians of the post-modern condition; the day had arrived when the conditions of employment of a mere critic, a commentator on the slick fictions of Hollywood, was judged interesting and important enough to follow the day's events in Westminster, Washington, and Kosovo. Evidence, as the intellectuals would say, that everything nowadays is just film.

Is criticism important? Have we really reached the point where we think critics are more interesting, more valuable than what they write about? Can anybody seriously suppose that, if Herzog or Kiarostami died tomorrow, the news would be judged significant enough to make the main evening bulletin? Of course, in part, this is just the usual self-obsession of the BBC, its curious belief that the public has the slightest interest in its labour disputes or gives a toss what happens to Radio 3.

But we are fascinated by critics; even the humble book reviewer can have his work picked up and chewed over by a number of regular columns. At the other end of the market, a fair number of critics - Brian Sewell, or Clive James in his TV-reviewing days - become effortlessly, and unremarkably, more famous than their hapless subjects.

The last time, I suppose, I watched Barry Norman's review of the week's movies, it was called something like Film '78, and he was in an armchair tweedily chirruping "Apocalypse Now - and why not?" Tuning in the other night, nothing much had changed, and it was frankly pretty hard to imagine anyone listening to these views, and taking them seriously as criticism. He seems an amiably avuncular sort of chap, with a sweetly wooden way with the autocue. And, unlike most film critics, he hasn't, over the years, come to loathe the very idea of going to the movies.

The trouble is, however, that his views only have the superficial appearance of rational criticism. The other night, he started pretty badly on A Thousand Acres by somehow forgetting to tell the viewer that it was based on a famous novel by Jane Smiley, and proceeding in the following remarkable vein. "Now, A Thousand Acres is, if you can imagine such a thing, King Lear transposed to a farm in the American MidWest. Actually, the idea's not at all bad - it's the execution that's wrong ... What in Shakespeare's hands was a classic tragedy, whose central character was an object of pity, is transformed into a glumly downbeat story of yet another dysfunctional American family, as if we haven't seen enough of those."

This sort of thing, which makes less and less sense the more you think about it, is very much his stock in trade. It will do no good to say that it isn't really criticism, still less anything resembling rational analysis, just someone paid to sit and say, "I didn't much like it." The fact is this is exactly what we want critics to do.

The noble profession of Johnson and Coleridge has passed into a branch of the entertainment industry; the secret of the success of this kind of criticism is that it is not intellectual, not analytical, and it confirms us in our belief that anybody at all could be a critic.

Barry Norman is massively popular and successful - he has a tabloid nickname, he has a famous catchphrase. And it's not because he's particularly remarkable or interesting in what he says, but because he's so ordinary. He is a figure of strange critical authority who confirms us in our belief that there is no such thing as critical authority, that some day we, too, are going to be paid to express our tastes on Sky TV.

A couple of weeks ago, I happened on a food programme in which three restaurant critics were cooking for restaurant chefs. The chefs were predictably unimpressed by the results. But the programme makers missed a trick by not asking them to write a column about the meal, thus giving Matthew Fort a chance to be as snooty about Anthony Worrall Thompson's prose style as the chef had already been about the critic's chicken sausages.

The assumption is that being a critic requires no especial ability to write, no particular expertise, and, even, no particular intelligence - and this is so evidently the case that it doesn't even need to be tested. I say assumption, but it's a bit more than that; it's the way we want things to be arranged. And, as Mr Norman would say, why not?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing