At first, the idea was that a panel of critics (a hit squad) should take care of the art forms that didn't require specialised knowledge: books, TV, theatre, film and radio. There would be a weekly lunch at which we would make our choices, though there would also be guests to make the atmosphere properly convivial. I imagined arm-wrestling Marina Warner for the privilege of reviewing Ingmar Bergman's five-hour Swedish-language production of Hamlet. Then a large cake would be brought in, out of which would burst, with any luck, Ned Sherrin.
At the same time, I didn't believe in the paper's existence. It seemed so unlikely that a broadsheet could be launched into a crowded market. It seemed just as likely that a millionaire philanthropist wanted to bestow solvency on me personally, and, knowing (or overrating) my pride, was pretending to employ me, in a process that was like the opposite of money- laundering. Giving charity the reassuringly grubby whiff of labour.
The first time I saw someone reading the paper on the tube, and turning to a page on which one of my reviews appeared, I was startled and uncomfortable. I didn't know where to look.
The idea of the team of critics with the "double 0" prefix never really took off, perhaps because we never had those magical lunches, and so the assignments had to be made by phone. It turned out, too, that readers preferred to associate a reviewer with a single subject area, and I gravitated towards film. Without the initial skirmishing, though, we would hardly have come up with the present arrangement, by which I write an extended weekly piece, usually on only one film.
This luxurious format suits me well. I wouldn't have been interested in the standard film-critic gig, which involves rounding up every film that comes out. That's a routine that would make me stale in no time at all. I would soon be sinking into my seat on a Monday morning with the sign "What insulting trash must I sit through now?" - a style of sigh that can often be heard in the screening rooms of Soho.
The space I am allotted allows me to broaden the argument - or compels me, in an unstimulating week, to make bricks without straw. I assume that people choose what films to go to on the basis of the stars, the publicity, or the director. There is also such a thing as loyalty to genre, and aversion to genre. It can only happen rarely that someone with a Western phobia buys a ticket for Unforgiven after reading a review, or a horror-film addict shuns The Fly 2 because of what the papers say.
So if a film review isn't really a consumer guide, what is it? I certainly don't feel I have a responsibility to be "right" about a movie. Was I wrong to think Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst a masterpiece when it vanished from the circuit almost before the review came out? Was I wrong to think that Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, widely felt to be unsavoury and exploitative, was an exemplary piece of modern entertainment?
There isn't a yearly quota of slams and raves to be fulfilled. I was under no obligation to like Forrest Gump, just because I hated Pulp Fiction, and vice versa. Just because you dislike something that's morbidly wholesome, it doesn't follow that you must adore something sneeringly trashy. All I have to do is make an argument. I'm not the judge, I'm an advocate, but one who has the sleazy luxury of turning on his clients if he feels like it. Put 'em in the box and make 'em sweat.
Only once has a director responded, and that was Tony Palmer at the time of Testimony. He said he was surprised that enough survived of his intentions in the released film for them to be discussed at all ambitiously. My review had been less than fully enthusiastic, but perhaps I gave him the melancholy pleasure of being beaten with a stick that was made to measure.
My mailbag is generally unpredictable. Two readers protested at my frothing denunciation of Awakenings, saying I obviously couldn't handle emotion in a film. I told them that they obviously couldn't handle emotion in a film review.
I thank the gentleman who claimed that reading my review of A River Runs Through It had prompted him to write his first poem for decades. Thanks also to the enthusiast who told me that Michelle Pfeiffer's costume in Batman Returns, though we have seen her cutting up a PVC coat to make it, is of course made of latex. My correspondent explained he was unable to sign his letter because "we rubber fetishists are still somewhat in the closet in the West Country".
Even in a good year for the domestic film industry, most of the films I review are not British. Consequently, I'm not often in a room with people I may have offended. The magic carpet of hype has swept on by the time the review is printed. Though I did have one lucky escape. On the day that my review of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid appeared - a review that was only averagely scathing by industry norms - I was in a cafe next to the Coliseum. The place was crowded, and the only free bar stool was next to mine. I looked up from the book I was reading and saw Roland Gift, one of the film's stars. He was heading towards me. There was nowhere else to head. He sat down next to me.
I kept my nose in my book, but every time I looked up someone else from the cast or crew appeared: Frances Barber, assistant editors. It was like the scene in The Birds where crows gather on a playground climbing frame, first one or two and then hundreds. The whole flock had assembled, to drown their sorrows. Their sorrows or a critic, if they could find one.
Finally I had the courage to leave, but I found I was modelling my movements on the last scene of Hitchcock's film, where the family leave the besieged house, tiptoeing through a vast congregation of birds. I moved very slowly through the twittering flock, keeping my eyes down, terrified of getting a peck. Finally I reached the doors and passed into the crisp air of St Martin's Lane, beyond criticism of my criticism.Reuse content