Barry Norman’s daughter on the film critic’s home life vs Hollywood – and their first trip to the cinema together

Emma Norman recalls her childhood memories of her father and his first ever appearance as the presenter of Film 72

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Emma Norman remembers the first time she went to the cinema with her famous father. “Dad took me and my sister Samantha to see Jaws at Leicester Square in 1975,” she says. “We ate popcorn but Dad jumped out of his seat when the shark came out of the water – we all did!”

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You might be surprised to find Barry Norman loved the worldwide smash about a disgruntled shark but, as Emma says, “Dad loved Steven Spielberg and he met him many times.”

The list of Barry Norman’s top 100 films overleaf is not studded with auteurs. At heart, Norman believed in directors such as Spielberg who made brilliant films for ordinary families to go to see; an appropriate stance for a critic who loved his own family so much he made movies with them.

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“When my son Bertie was a teenager, he made films using the family as actors,” Emma says. “Bertie would cast Dad as the hero because he adored him. We were making a film in a field in the village where we live and a couple walked past. They did a double take, came back and said: ‘See, it is Barry Norman!’ Dad just carried on regardless.”

We’re speaking only three days after Norman died in his sleep aged 83, after a two-year struggle with lung cancer. His parents were the British film director Leslie Norman, who made the original 1958 Dunkirk (see page 30), and film editor Elizabeth Norman. His own career started in the 1950s as a trainee journalist then, in the 1960s, a showbusiness correspondent. After leaving the Daily Mail in 1971, Norman became the country’s pre-eminent film critic when he accepted the anchor role on the BBC’s Film programme in 1972.

On screen he was friendly, wry and gently insightful, but what was he like at home? “Just the way he was on television,” says Emma. “He would make us laugh so much. He was a lovely man, very, very gentle. Mum was the disciplinarian when we were kids. Dad was hopeless.”

See Barry Norman’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time in this week’s issue of Radio Times

Pick up a copy in shops and on the Apple Newsstand from Tuesday 11 July

Famously Norman once said, “Sitting for an hour or so with your legs brushing up against Michelle Pfeiffer’s is not a bad way to earn a living”, but his 53-year-marriage to Diana, a well-regarded historical novelist, was at the centre of his life. Diana’s death in 2011 lead to Norman writing See You in the Morning, a memoir of a relationship that brought him much happiness, two daughters and three grandchildren.

“There’s a picture of the 1957 wedding where Dickie Attenborough is kissing Mum and Donald Sinden’s kissing the back of Richard Attenborough’s head,” says Emma. “But when we were young Dad didn’t bring stars home – in fact he didn’t want to be friends with stars at all. Dad had so much integrity I think he felt it might affect his work. If he was reviewing a film in the afternoon he would only have one glass of wine with his lunch.”

His career took him to Cannes and Hollywood, but Norman preferred village life in Datchworth in Hertfordshire. “The village never made a big thing about him,” says Emma. “He played cricket for the local team and they would go to the pub every Sunday. Later on a lot of people asked him to be in their pub quiz team but Dad wouldn’t do it, he didn’t like competitiveness. Mum once broke his nose with a Scrabble board when he’d won a game.”

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Emma still recalls the very first time her father presented Film 72. “My sister and I were very young at the time and wanted to stay up and watch it. Mum was a bit ‘hmmm’, but she let us in the end. It was very exciting and we knew the local vicar was going to watch as well. Then Dad came on and did a review of this film, a drama called something like Sewage; it was quite disgusting. Mum was horrified. ‘The vicar’s watching, and the girls!’”

A future vicar of Datchworth, Richard Syms, was also an actor and appeared in his underpants in the hard-hitting prostitution movie Stella Does Tricks. Playing the clip on Film 96, Norman said, “And that’s my vicar.” The next day Datchworth was overwhelmed by tabloid reporters looking for the “porn film cleric”. Syms and Norman became friends, so much so that Syms will be officiating at his funeral, just as he did at Diana’s. 

Norman’s popularity peaked in 1977 when he appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, watched by 28 million people. “That’s when we knew he was really famous,” Emma says. As her father became even more successful he took on new television projects like The Hollywood Greats and, at different times, presented the Today programme and The News Quiz on Radio 4. “I remember that being horrible for us,” says Emma. “He would go away every summer to film in LA. But whenever he could, he would be there to collect us at the school gates.”

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There were also advantages to having a famous father. “When we got older, Dad would take my sister and me to functions. We met loads of people, like Pedro Almodóvar and Holly Hunter.”

In 1998 Norman left the BBC and went to Sky TV. “The BBC let him go very quietly, there was never a great big party or send off or anything,” says Emma. “I think he thought, ‘Well, bugger them.’ But it was great for Samantha and me, it meant we got Sky TV.”

Norman’s latter years were marred by the death of Diana. “He was really plucky after she died and really supportive for us but there was a massive gulf left for him,” Emma says. “The grandchildren were one of the things that got him through. Dad would take Bertie to the local cinema as often as he could. The last film they saw together was Skyfall, and Dad loved it. But as he grew ill it became too much for him.”

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Norman was diagnosed with lung cancer just over two years ago and underwent chemotherapy and then immunotherapy, but developed pneumonia at the end of June. “We had a lovely chat with him on the day he died,” says Emma. “The thing with Dad was, even though his body was failing, his mind wasn’t. He was very computer literate; he would watch a lot of films on his computer as well as on television. He was so sharp, we thought, ‘No, he can’t be dying.’ In a way, I don’t think any of us ever thought he would.”  

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