Gilbert Adair – acerbic, astute and a true cinephile

Mike Higgins pays tribute to former IoS film critic

Gilbert Adair, who died last week at the age of 66, was for two years at the end of the last century the chief film critic of The Independent on Sunday. Each week, he filed a column that wasn't merely his pithy, often withering assessment of that week's most eye-catching release; incrementally, his reviews amounted to a rearguard action in defence of his beloved cinema, which, in his view, was suffering in "an era of pandemic imagorrhea ... [and] such parasitical media as television, video and advertising". This makes him sound elitist, which he was, and no fun at all, which he certainly wasn't.

As he pronounced upon, damned and just occasionally approved of the week's offerings, he did so in a voice that deprecated its owner's undeniable cinephile authority – a ludic, knowing quality that extended beyond his writing on film. His irresistibly playful fiction ranged from Agatha Christie pastiches (the Evadne Mount trilogy) to literary thrillers (A Closed Book), via imagined further adventures of Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll's Alice. Three of Adair's books themselves became films: Love and Death on Long Island, a comic recasting of Death in Venice; his somewhat autobiographical account of his days in 1968 Paris, The Holy Innocents (filmed as The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci); and A Closed Book. There was also an impressive body of non-fiction, among which his quite personal history of the cinema, Flickers, and Movies, the anthology of film writing that he edited, are still fondly and rightly remembered.

Adair also wrote for The Independent on Sunday a year-long column called The Guillotine, which throughout 1999 detailed, in his estimation, those figures who would fall out of the canon soon in the new century (Henry Moore, Bugs Bunny, Kenneth Tynan ...). Underlying that column was the seeming anxiety that Adair himself was not cut out for the 21st century. Though he was prolific until the brain haemorrhage that finally killed him, Adair's taste for the pell-mell of modern life was, perhaps, limited (despite the fact that he had thrown stones at the police in Paris in 1968): he didn't like the Tube, and distrusted email to the extent that his editors here were required to read out to him the first and last sentences of each paragraph of his review each week. The prospect, too, that he might, as his father had, lose his fragile eyesight was of frequent worry to him; sadly, in the last months of his life, Adair's sight did indeed fail him.

When this newspaper was unfortunate enough to lose his services a decade ago, even the apparently pessimistic Adair couldn't hide the delight in his voice when he said that he was too busy with his new project to continue reviewing – and who could blame him for choosing Bernardo Bertolucci over The Independent on Sunday?

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