Taking French leave: Mark Kermode appointed new Observer film critic

17 Aug

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So Mark Kermode, 50, has just been appointed as the Observer’s film critic, replacing the venerable Philip French who retired after turning 70. While this may not do that much for lowering the age range of film critics (I often find myself the youngest person in the preview cinemas when I review movies, and I’m no wunderkind), it is a Very Good Thing, because Mark is a Very Good Thing.

A personal anecdote to explain why. One Tuesday night 20-plus years ago at Time Out, before I became editor and was still on the subs’ desk, I noticed young Mark lowering his trademark quiff over the new issue and comparing his printed review with the original copy on his screen.

Accustomed to writers complaining about their deathless prose being rearranged, I went over and asked if something was the matter. And he said something that, I swear, I have never heard before or since in nearly 30 years of journalism.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m looking at how my copy has been improved, so that I can learn from it.”

I knew then he would go far. And learn he has. But he has never lost the fearlessness with which he first turned up at Time Out’s offices with a fistful of cuttings from Manchester’s City Life, claiming (falsely) to have an appointment with film editor Geoff Andrew.

And if you don’t think fearlessness is the single most important quality in a critic, here’s another anecdote. At the opening night dinner for the London Film Festival in 1994, I sat with a table of editors and critics all slagging off that evening’s Gala Premiere, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, starring Robert De Niro. Hang on, I said to one national critic who was joining in the general bashing, I saw your review. You said it was brilliant, and gave it four stars.

“Of course,” he said, unabashed. “It’s British. It’s Kenneth Branagh. The editor and the paper wanted a good review.”

Mark, I’m pretty sure, would never, ever, ever, ever alter a review. Unless he changed his mind himself, as he admits to doing on a second viewing of Blue Velvet in his excellent autobiography. (The autobiography is called It’s Only a Movie, it’s very funny, and I heartily recommend it. Especially for the chapter on the press trip from hell in the depths of Russia. And the one on how he was with Werner Herzog when he got shot in the arse.) Whether or not you agree that The Exorcist is the best movie of all time, you have to admire Mark’s conviction in sticking with it.

Mark’s appointment is also A Good Thing in that it reverses a trend for newspapers to treat arts criticism as disposable: something to be dispensed with altogether (the Independent on Sunday has fired its critics en masse, effective next month), or passed around favoured columnists. Mark has a passion for the pictures. Too much so for the BBC, who passed over Mark for Claudia Winkleman as a replacement for Jonathan Ross in 2010 on their flagship film programme.

“I don’t do moderation,” Mark explained on his Radio 5 show at the time, adding that the BBC would need “a mainstream sensibility”.

Congratulations to the Observer for appointing someone equally at home with horror and sci-fi as with European art cinema. And here’s to the next 20 years of Sundays.

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