I was saddened to read in last week's Observer that the paper's esteemed film critic Philip French has announced his retirement. I've been reading his film reviews since I was in the VIth form, which means he's been a part of my intellectual life for over 40 years. In fact, if I'm to be really honest about my ambitions, reading Philip French's reviews made me want to be a reviewer, and one like him if I could possibly manage it.
There was always something about Philip French's reviews that made them stand out. He didn't just tell you what happened in a particular film, he set it in context - artistically, culturally, commercially. He always seemed to have seen every other film the director had made or the actors had appeared in, so could make comparisons and assess whole careers. He wrote about the screenwriters and the editing, the the film's music, and all in a spirit that boiled down to one question - is this film any good? And last but not least, he always wrote brilliantly, with a fine turn of phrase and a dash of properly grown-up humour.
Years went past, and I eventually found myself working as a journalist, and lo, my wish was granted I began to review children's books, and it's been a part of my working life ever since. I've reviewed books of all kinds - picture books, short fiction, junior novels, books for teens. Through all that time my model, my gold standard for reviewing, has been the work of Philip French. So when I'm asked to review a novel, I feel it incumbent upon me to find out about the author's other work. I too like to set a book in its context and explore the particular challenges of the genre the writer has chosen to work in. Ultimately I ask the same question - is this book any good? Has the writer achieved what he or she set out to? A good critic should engage objectively and fairly with a book, and that also means not giving in to any special pleading. I've often heard the argument that as children's books get so little coverage, it's somehow 'wrong' to give 'bad' reviews. I don't buy that, and I'm sure Philip French wouldn't either. People sometimes forget that a professional reviewer is being paid by a newspaper or broadcaster to provide a service to readers or listeners - and to be anything other than objective and honest is taking money under false pretences.
Of course in recent years we've seen an explosion of amateur reviewing on the internet. I think it's fine for anyone to express their opinions, but - and maybe I'm old-fashioned in this - I would always rather read the reviews of someone who has enormous experience of a particular art form, and who can write well about it. Great professional critics in any field are vital. They draw our attention to works we might otherwise miss, they puncture the great balloons of hype that often obscure our view of what is really worth noticing, and they help creative artists to think about what they're doing and whether they're doing it well. A good review is in itself like a small work of art - or it should be if you're doing it right. Philip French himself has said: 'No critic should ever say they are bored. It is not enough just to understand a film; you must try to say something of interest or value.'
That's certainly a credo worth following. I'm going to miss Philip French's reviews - although I might be able to console myself by reading the first volume of his collected writings on film and culture - I Found It At The Movies. And I'll always feel that if the reviews I write can be a tenth as good as his, then I'll be doing a very good job indeed.
Tony Bradman's most recent review can be found here :http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/04/sun-catcher-sheila-rance-review/
Philip French's I Found It At The Movies can be found here: http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781847771292