Both Mariella Frostrup and Jonathan Ross are to make pilot film shows which will be viewed by the controller of BBC1, Peter Salmon, to help him decide whom to appoint as Norman's successor in 1999.
The beauty contest will end months of indecision about the fresh look for BBC1's flagship film programme, which has had a knock-on effect throughout the television production industry this autumn. Editors across the channels have been at a loss to work out exactly where the gap in film coverage will be and have delayed commissioning rival cinema shows.
It was three years ago that BBC executives first acknowledged they wanted a "younger" feel for the film show format, but they were happy to let Barry Norman - after 26 years in the job, a national institution - bow out gracefully.
Norman, 64, left the BBC in July for a lucrative contract with satellite television where he now presents his own Sunday preview show, Barry Norman's Film Night, on Sky Premier.
After five months of deliberation - and rumours indicating that personalities as varied as Radio 1's streetwise film critic Mark Kermode, journalist, musician and male model Richard Jobson, and Irish presenter David Fanning were all in the running - Mr Salmon has narrowed down the field to two front-runners. A BBC insider said: "The decision on the film programme has been delayed by negotiation with Planet 24, the company that makes The Big Breakfast with Johnny Vaughn, but he has now been excluded from the picture."
In Vaughn's stead, the BBC has turned to a comparative elder statesman as one of the main contenders for the prestigious pounds 140,000 position. Like Vaughn, Jonathan Ross made his name on Channel 4 and he too has a keen interest in film. He first appeared on small screens in the 1980s as a chat show host on the ground-breaking The Last Resort, more recently compered a talent show for ITV and presented a series on cult films. In contrast, Mariella Frostrup represents a more upmarket approach. An experienced mainstream arts and chat show host, her serious but mildly sardonic style marks her out as perhaps the closest match to Norman himself. Nevertheless, the format for the Frostrup version of the show is not likely to be based entirely on straight reviews. One planned segment will have an apparently casual, post-cinema chat with a celebrity guest.
Channel 4, which commissioned the innovative new film series Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is waiting to see which way the BBC jumps before it decides how to develop their own show. Charlie Higson, the current presenter of the show and a member of The Fast Show team, is watching with interest.
"Although I am known as a comedian, our show was always intended to be a serious film programme. If they want to take Kiss Kiss Bang Bang more towards straight reviewing, I don't think I will stay involved," he said. "Barry Norman has always been there, and even if you did not always agree with him, you knew what his views were and so he acted as a kind of national barometer. If the BBC now hire someone with a lighter approach, the whole format will be different and other shows on television will alter in response."
Higson believes the main problem facing all the film shows on television are late and shifting slots. "Even Barry Norman suffered from that," he pointed out.
Stuart Maconie, a broadcaster who co-presented a late-night film show with Andrew Collins until recently, thinks other dangers are lurking.
"The BBC have really got to avoid becoming a publicity machine, whatever they do," he said. "Whoever they eventually go with as a presenter, they must steer clear of all those bland interviews with stars who just say that `everyone on the set was really sweet'."
Peter Salmon is believed to be keen to give the new film show an earlier time if he can find a format which will appeal to a wider audience. If he does, commissioning editors on rival channels are likely to respond in kind, as film becomes increasingly regarded as a subject of broad public appeal.
Famous for her husky voice, the Norwegian-born-but-Irish-raised journalist made her name on ITV's movie review slot, `The Little Picture Show'. More recently she formed a major part of Channel 5's glitzy launch package, fronting both its arts chat show `Brunch' and its motoring show. Aged 36, she has a weekly movie review column in the `News Of The World' and many friends among the movers and shakers of so-called Cool Britannia. Her approach is thought to be less offbeat than Ross's, although her collection of both high-brow and populist contacts is a good bet to provide a ready supply of celebrity reviewers for the show.
Early associations with the stand-up comedy circuit in south London (and specifically with the alternative comic Vic Reeves and the DJ Danny Baker) have helped to shape Ross's unusual and irreverent style. Now 38, he began his television career in sharp 1980s suits and has continued with a self-mocking dandyism. After `The Last Resort', which was produced by Katie Lander for Channel X, Ross went on to present `Tonight With Jonathan Ross', `Jonathan Ross Presents' and `Saturday Zoo'. He also took Chris Evans's place on his Virgin Radio breakfast show this summer and is about to become a columnist with the `Mirror'.Reuse content