Friday, 1 April 2011

Profile: Barry Norman

[singlepic id=56 w=600 h=450 float=right]Here, for the first time, I'm pleased to reproduce a chapter from my forthcoming book, ‘Famous Men Called Barry’. If it proves successful and you enjoy this, I might publish other previews of the book, including my chapters on Barry Sheen, Barry Took, John Barry, and my two chapters on the greatest Barry of them all: Barry Humphries.

Chapter 27: Barry Norman

Although eventually he was to become Britain’s favourite film critic, Barry Norman’s career began in the rag trade in the East End of London in 1952. Originally trained as a lingerie draftsman specialising in girdles for the larger cut of womanhood, Norman was responsible for the first press-studded gusset and elasticated thigh supports which were to become industry standards by the end of the decade. Yet by 1963, the hippy movement saw the advent of the liberated female figure. The classical hourglass shape of the 1950s, popularised by pneumatic stars such as Marilyn Monroe, gave way to that of pot-bellied crystal bangers such as Mama Cass. Girdle sales plummeted and when the industry faced its severest cutbacks of all after the failure of the 1964 elastic harvest, Norman faced redundancy for the first time in his life.

Yet with the wiles that would later serve him well among the elite of Hollywood, Norman saw an opening in the rapidly expanding world of print journalism and, in 1965, he became the first fashion correspondent for the Racing Post. Establishing his reputation as an investigative reporter, he went undercover as a jockey for the whole of the 1967’s racing calendar. He won only five races and raced for half the season with a broken collar bone but his exposé about the secret world of high society ‘butter jockeys’ led to his being named Sports Journalist of the Year. It marked a new phase of his career.

Moving to work for the Daily Mail, he began to specialise in showbiz news and, in 1970, wrote the first contemporary account of Hollywood’s treatment of the post-Oz munchkins. ‘Sit On My Lap, Little Man’ was not a best seller but it caught the eye of producers of the BBC’s new movie show, Film 72.

The offer of work was originally to have been for six weeks whilst Raymond Baxter, the regular host, was on sick leave after accidentally swallowing aviation fuel during the filming a segment about Spitfires in the movies. Baxter never returned to the show, though would continue to make documentaries about Spitfires until he was shot down in 2007. Meanwhile, Norman was confirmed as the series’ regular host and would continue in the job until 1998.

Norman admitted that he was nervous to find himself the nation’s chief arbiter of movie tastes and in his first few seasons he would rarely criticise a film, choosing to instead mock them with his trademark dry humour. However his dislike of subtitled films from Eastern Europe involving symbolic shots of wheels soon established him as a favourite among film fans. He was popular among movie stars too and would often call upon his old skills to provide custom underwear, including the hand-stitched black basque he provided for Joan Collins iconic performance in The Bitch (1979).

Despite his success and popularity, there was a dark side to the Barry Norman phenomenon. He was irritated when the public began to know him by the phrase ‘and why not’ and he spent most of the 1980s writing letters to the newspapers to explain that he’d never uttered this phrase. Over the years he attempted to develop an alternative catchphrase of his own but the British public never took to either ‘it didn’t tickle my nachos’ or ‘did it succeed? You can call me Aunt Gracie if it did’. It was a bad time in Norman’s life. As his fame grew, so did his frustration, leading to the notorious events of the 1992 Bafta Television Awards when he had be pulled off a prostrate Rory Bremner by Caroline Quentin and Christopher Biggins.

Yet, by the 1990s, Norman had reconciled himself somewhat with his catchphrase. He had come a long way yet, to his credit, he never forgot his roots and would continue to mention one item of lingerie in every single show over the thirty year run of the show.

Officially classes as a natural treasure in 2002 and recently spared from government attempts to sell him to France to reduce the country’s debt, he now lives in retirement and spends his time watching cricket or dozing in a comfortable armchair with a film on in the background, occasionally muttering ‘and why not’ though, of course, he will always deny it when he wakes up.


  1. Aaaah. A nice bit of comedy writing.

    Can't wait for the book.

  2. As you can tell, Zeb, I'm having one of those strange days...