Film 2011’s Danny Leigh on nerves, cinema etiquette and Claudia Winkleman

With BBC1's movie show returning, we chat to its resident reviewer

“The most apocalyptically frightening thing I’ve ever experienced. Sheer white-hot terror.”

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It sounds as if Danny Leigh, Film 2011’s resident critic, is describing the season’s latest big-screen horror movie. But these are actually recollections of his live debut as co-presenter with Claudia Winkleman in October last year, after taking over the reins from Jonathan Ross.

“I only got the job four weeks before the first show and I’d never done any live TV. I didn’t have much time to dwell on it, but on the day of the show I had this feeling of mounting hysteria coming over me. I thought I might do a runner and that half-an-hour before transmission, I’d be in the car park.”

Taking to the couch

Leigh, 39 and a long-time writer for The Guardian, was not only dealing with first-night nerves but also a new format. Gone were the days when a sole host would deliver straight-to-camera verdicts on that week’s releases. There was now a smart new studio, a sofa and – most importantly – a conversation where once there was a monologue.

When we meet at BBC White City, where Radio Times and Film 2011 share a west London base, I ask whether this change felt like evolution or a seismic shift.

“The logic behind the programme becoming a debate is because that’s how people relate to film. Movies are an inherently social thing and the idea of having one authoritative voice seems slightly demented.

“Barry Norman’s role was appropriate to the 1970s and 80s and Jonathan was this huge celebrity, but who these days would want to set themselves up as the nation’s critic? I certainly wouldn’t. I would question the psychology of anyone who wanted to take to the pulpit and hold forth.”

The gamble is one that appears to have paid dividends. The ever-enthusiastic Winkleman plus Leigh, in his role as analytical reviewer, return tonight for a second run (the show itself is now in its 40th year), albeit in the later slot of 11.20pm.

“Everyone was happy with the changes,” Leigh insists. “It’s just that there are bigger ratings-pullers that can take the 10.45pm slot. It always was a late-night show.”

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Putting heads together

For both the viewer and those in front of the camera, the shock of the new has now worn off, although the seven-month gap between broadcasts means that this sophomore series will initially be “a voyage of rediscovery”. I wonder whether, in order to make sure that everything flows between the pair of them, they make their views known to each other prior to transmission.

“At the start we rehearsed in the couple of hours before we went on air. We barely knew each other so we were feeling our way. But live TV works best when you can see people thinking. A lot of the time we end up seeing films together and the impulse is to talk about them straightaway but we try not to. What we don’t want to do is manufacture any disagreement, you can’t confect an argument.”
Films up for discussion in the opener include Contagion, We Need to Talk about Kevin and the much-anticipated The Adventures of Tintin. But what of the modern-day movie-going experience for us punters?

Breaking the rules

Over on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo (who present the station’s weekly Film Review show each Friday) have drawn up rules of cinema etiquette, including stipulations that food no harder than a soft roll should be consumed and that mobile-phone use should be outlawed.

Leigh doesn’t actually refer to Kermode and Mayo by name but he certainly has his own views on the issue: “Codes of conduct make me feel a little bit uneasy. The idea that we used to sit there in some dim and distant moment in time, stroking our chins and sitting in ecclesial silence is just bogus. It’s false-memory syndrome.

“In the 1930s, cinemas were a riot. They were full of kids and the one place you could go to canoodle on the back row. Mobile phones have changed things because they’re another level of annoyance and I don’t want to belittle those who’ve had a miserable experience, but cinema is a participatory thing. This isn’t church. There are films where it’s appropriate to sit respectfully, but essentially it’s a trashy medium. That’s part of its beauty and it should be embraced.”

There is the temptation with Leigh to just wind him up and watch him go. He openly talks of being “very fond” of the sound of his own voice. But there’s also a reserved quality, a reluctance to have his thoughts taken as the definitive word on a topic, and it’s something that again ties in with his partnership with Winkleman.

“I’m more than happy to offer my opinion, but I feel more comfortable with them being in the context of someone else with a differing view. I think Barry and Jonathan did what they did incredibly well, but it’s just a huge weight upon your shoulders. I would genuinely dislike it if someone were to parrot what I’d said rather than see the movie. On quite a profound level, I don’t want to tell people what to think.”

And those early feelings of fear – have they completely evaporated?

“Well, pre-recording would now seem insipid. I did find it incredibly nerve-wracking to be presenting without the safety net but, at the same time, it is slightly addictive. To begin with, I was just busy making sure that my mouth was moving and that words were coming out, but now I know that if either of us loses the thread, the other person can hold a hand and guide them back.”