Sunday 22 April 2018

Obituary: Philip French

Acclaimed critic who made plenty of jokes while taking proper films seriously

PUNNED BY THE CRITICS: Philip French, pictured at the Cinema Museum, was famous for his witty wordplay
PUNNED BY THE CRITICS: Philip French, pictured at the Cinema Museum, was famous for his witty wordplay

Philip French, who has died aged 82, was the doyen of English film critics; he estimated that he had seen some 14,000 movies, many of them during the 50 years that he wrote for The Observer.

French's reviews were not so much expressions of opinion as an education in the history of cinema. He believed that it was the greatest art form of the 20th century, and strove, successfully, to transform the belief that prevailed in his youth that, unlike drama or literature, it was merely a guilty pleasure that could not be taken seriously.

In time, he also set himself against another form of cultural snobbery, that one should only enjoy serious-minded, preferably foreign films, rather than the Westerns, thrillers and musicals in which French also took delight. It was a battle which, by the time he retired in 2013, he rather regretted having won - inasmuch as modern cinemagoers seemed to regard popular cinema as the only kind worth watching.

French began to write for The Observer in 1963, becoming its chief film critic a decade later. His reviews became noted both for the breadth of his knowledge and for his fondness for puns, which stemmed from his own experience of having a stammer. Writing about stamps, French began: "I don't know much about philately, but I know what I lick." A review of a biopic of a reggae singer concluded "Honi soit qui Marley pense" (a play on words of the motto of the Order of the Garter, 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' - which translates as 'Shame on him who thinks ill of it'). He liked to recall the B-movie actor who traded Hollywood for a typewriter and called his memoir Forgive Us Our Press Passes.

His favourite films included Singin' in the Rain, Wild Strawberries, La Règle du Jeu and Stagecoach. French regarded Westerns as America's great contribution to modern culture and, though a lifelong left-leaning liberal, he had a great affection for the United States, to which he had escaped for a year from the narrow confines of post-war Britain.

Among those directors whom he championed were Jane Campion , Joseph Losey, Terence Davies, Christopher Nolan and Stephen Frears. He was occasionally disappointed, however, on meeting directors to realise that they were less passionate about cinema's traditions than was he.

Indeed, he sometimes seemed to see life through a camera lens. Exiting Highbury stadium once after a football match, he and his son began to be separated by scuffling fans. As his father was carried farther and farther away from him, his son heard French shouting: "But this is just like the last scene in Les Enfants du Paradis!"

Philip Neville French was born on August 28, 1933, in Liverpool. His father had left school at 13 to work on the docks before becoming an insurance salesman. This led to the family moving regularly. Philip saw his first film in Leicester, aged four, and at 13, while a pupil at Merchant Taylors' School in Crosby, Liverpool, he disguised himself in his father's trilby to sneak into a horror double-bill.

By then he had developed his stammer. He was never certain of its cause, although the three years that he had spent apart from his parents as an evacuee during the war may have contributed to it. While at Bristol Grammar School, he learned to protect himself from mockery of his speech, and his alopecia, by cultivating physical and verbal aggressiveness.

Accordingly, when he came to do National Service, he applied not like many Oxbridge-bound contemporaries to the more obviously cerebral Intelligence Corps, but to the Parachute Regiment.

After being commissioned in 1952, French served with its 3rd Battalion for three years, in part in the Suez Canal Zone. His chief memory of watching film there was a near-mutiny by the troops at a screening of Niagara - when the electricity cut out just as Marilyn Monroe was about to take a shower in the movie.

He briefly contemplated making the military his career, before going up as planned to Exeter College, Oxford. There he read Law - a choice imposed on him by his father - but devoted himself largely to journalism (he edited Isis, the students' magazine).

In 1957, he won a journalism scholarship to Indiana University. There he met, and soon married, a Swedish student, Kersti Molin. They subsequently discovered that they had both gone to the same screening of a Doris Day film in New York.

French's career began at the Bristol Evening Post, before he moved to the BBC, in 1959, as a radio producer. He worked on the programme The Critics for some three decades, while also writing about film for several publications before forming his association with The Observer.

French's many books included Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre (1973) and a collection of essays, I Found it at the Movies (2011). He was Critic of the Year at the Press Awards in 2009, and appointed an OBE in 2013.

His wife and their three sons survive him.


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