When critics become entertainers - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

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?

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week