Barry Norman interview: films, loss and writing

With his new book See You In The Morning out now, Simon chats to Barry Norman about his writing, his BBC Film programme, writing and more...

There’s a bit in his new book, See You In The Morning, where Barry Norman relates his frustration with movie stars being late for interviews, to the point where George Clooney was once kept waiting because Norman had gone off to the loo, so convinced was he that Clooney wouldn’t be on time.

Let us tell you: the man practices what he preaches. Three minutes early, the phone rang, and we started talking to the man that so many of us grew up watching, thanks to his near two-decades of work on the Film programme on BBC One.

Barry Norman was talking to us about his new book, See You In The Morning, where he relates the story of his lengthy marriage to his wife, Diana (herself an award-winning, hugely acclaimed writer). It’s a terrific book, which deals head on with the feeling of loss that Norman has felt since she died back in 2011. Witty, warm and genuinely touching, it’s out now in hardback. And here’s how our chat with Barry Norman went…

You touch on this in the book, where you talk about how writers have to write. But why did you put this story, such a personal one, out in a book?

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I thought that Diana was special, and was wonderful, and I thought I’d like everybody to know about her. It was as simple as that. As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was over after I’d written an initial newspaper article about her. It wasn’t my intention to write a book. I was asked to do that, and I then I thought yeah, then I can tell even more about her, and tell even more people how wonderful she was.

It’s a lovely thing to do. I’d imagine it’s a lovely thing for your two daughters as well?

Yes, well, thank God they both liked the book very much. And they think their mum would have been very pleased with it, which is a huge relief, because if she hadn’t, if it was the kind of book she wouldn’t have liked, it would have been a total failure.

Do you think this is the kind of book that you think Diana would be glad you’ve written?

Well my daughters were absolutely sure that she would be very pleased with it. It does honestly tell the story of our relationship.

There’s very little gloss to the book, which I really liked. There’s something steadfastly down to earth about it.

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Well, what I particularly wanted to avoid was making it sentimental and mawkish. I do think I’ve succeeded in doing that. It’s a matter of fact account, and I hope in parts it’s very funny too. It’s truthful and matter of fact account of 53 years of my life, and hers.

It did have the best phrase I’ve read in a book all year: “I’ve burnt my fucking wig on a Christmas pudding”! What really struck me though is that whenever you read people’s life stories, there’s an idealistic account that tends to be put across, which is alien to many who have been in a long marriage. Whereas the fallings out and arguments are perhaps what helps make a marriage work…

Oh, they’re integral to it, yeah.

You make a point later on in the book where you talk about the secret to your marriage was how separate you were.

I think that’s important too, giving each other space. It would be ridiculous to assume that two people are going to share wholly identical interests. We had a load of identical interests, and we also had separate interests, and we gave each other space to pursue those interests, and not get in the way. And we both did that, with her sailing, and me with my love of cricket.

You describe a trip to New York where both of your worlds seemed to come together particularly well?

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Yes. I didn’t like New York. I’d been several times before Diana came. And then when Diana came with me, she was enchanted by it. She just fell in love with the place immediately, and then I began to see it through her eyes. And I’ve developed a real affection for New York as a result of that.

Yet you talk early on in the book where your marriage nearly fell apart. The first year or two when your marriage wasn’t working. I wonder if circumstance and time saved your relationship there? Because even a decade later, it would have been far easier to go your separate ways.

I think we were lucky. Very lucky. In that it was at that time when people did not part so easily. They made the commitment of getting married, and they were much more inclined to stick it out than people are nowadays. Even so, if it hadn’t been for the fact that, as Diana pointed out, that we’d have to send all the wedding presents back and we can’t remember who sent them to us, we would have parted. And then we thought that if we stick around a year or a bit more, then we won’t have to send them back, and we won’t look quite so foolish!

In my view, by the time we got into the second year of marriage, things are a lot better. Although I discovered later from an email that Diana sent to a friend just before her death, the second year was as bad as the first! I remember that, because for me the second year, while not blissfully happy, was much, much better than the first.

So how close do you think you really came to going your separate ways? 

How close? Oh I think around about six or seven months in, we were very close. It was just the fear of looking stupid, for throwing in the towel early. And the business of the wedding presents. I think that was the only thing that kept us together at that time.

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I have to ask then: did you get particularly good wedding presents?

Well no! They were very nice, but nothing absolutely spectacular! If they had been, we’d have remembered who sent them! But they were run of the mill, very nice, tasteful, well chosen, wedding presents. But who sent the toaster? God knows! Who sent the carving knives? God knows! That was the problem!

The turning point of your relationship appeared to be buying what became your family home, where you’ve lived for many decades. It’s clearly a very special place to you. But was there ever any thought of leaving the house, because it seemed to ground you and Diana’s marriage?

There were two houses that came up for sale in the village that were bigger than ours. The first was quite soon after we moved in, and I could just about afford the extra money. I was quite keen on it, but Diana said no, I like it here. And an even better one came up many years later, and I could just about have afforded that one, and Diana said no again. That was actually too big, a very nice house. But she said first of all, it is huge, and we’re going to need far more help than we have at the moment. And then on top of that, she said I don’t want to move anyway because I love this house. And that was the end of the argument!

That seemed to be the end of most of your arguments!

She won, she won! She always won!

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There’s a lovely phrase that you use to describe Diana: you say she wasn’t just a bloody good writer, she was an honourable one.


Can you capture that for those reading this interview who haven’t read the book yet? What it was that was so deeply honourable about her?

The example I put in the book was that in her writing, she would mix fictional characters with real life characters over the centuries. Particularly Ariana Franklin [Diana’s one time pen name] and the 12th century work. But she flatly refused to have any of the characters, the real characters, do anything that conflicted with what is known about them. She wrote a book about Anastasia, the princess of Russia who disappeared without a trace. And it was suggested to her that she should have Anastasia committing a murder. And Diana absolutely poo-pooed the idea, because it’s very unlikely that Anastasia, even if she did survive the massacre of her family, would have killed anybody. She flatly refused to do that.

When writing Henry II, she wouldn’t have him doing anything apart from that that was known that he would do. She researched everything meticulously, and the lovely thing was that she’d come up with some quite recondite and fascinating information, and she wouldn’t do what so many writers do which would be to say hang about, I’m going to tell you something you’ve not heard before. She’d just throw it in, and let the reader absorb it or not, depending on how they felt.

With modern day writers, that are lots of very good ones. But do you think that there’s been a dilution in honour?

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I think I would agree with that. I think people are more likely to take liberties with the known facts of historical events than Diana would have dreamed of doing.

I remember as a teenager watching your Film programme religiously every week – it was interesting to read in the book that the BBC didn’t think people under 30 watched it! But it really sticks in my mind the episode when you did a tribute to your father, Leslie Norman, a day or two after his death. You also penned a piece for The Observer about him to within a day or so.

You take us behind the scenes of the tribute in the Film programme in the book. But when he died, was going on air, and writing the piece, a way of addressing your grief? You say in the book that they kept the photographs they were going to use away from you in rehearsal.

I couldn’t have done it. If I’d seen those photographs beforehand I would have broken down. That’s where Bruce Thompson, my producer, was such a sensitive guy. He didn’t let me know, never even hinted that they were going to put any illustrations behind me while I was talking about dad.

I was asked by The Observer to write the tribute, the weekend after he died, and I was very pleased to do that. He never quite got the recognition he deserved. He was a very distinct filmmaker.

Stanley Kubrick crops up a couple of times in the book, most hilariously at Christmas. You always said on your Film programme, that the proportion of good to bad films rarely changed year to year. But you quote Kubrick saying to you that “you can’t make a film on an idea, you have to have a story”. Even taking into account your belief that the number of good films doesn’t change, do you think Kubrick put his finger on the decline in the number of good, very big films?

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Yes. There has been a decline. Not visually, of course. They’re getting bigger and bigger and more and more spectacular all the time. But the problem is that they’re making these films for 15 to 18 year olds because that’s the target audience of the cinema name. It’s a little bit horrifying. And these are not necessarily… I’m not saying they’re stupid kids, but they’re not kids who necessarily are going to take their brain to the cinema, or want to. They just want to be stirred, visually, and excited.

And so as a result of that, a lot of these films are based on ideas that run out three quarters of the way through. And so they finish the film with even more explosions and chases and killings, because they’ve limited their ambitions with regards the audience. Kubrick was absolutely right: you need a story, not an idea.

What films around at the moment impress you then? I know you’re a big fan of Skyfall for instance.

Obviously I’ve not seen anywhere near as many films as I used to, because I gave up the day job some years back. But I haven’t, quite honestly, seen anything that’s deeply impressed me over the last three months. But then I don’t expect to in the summer. That’s the time when they bring out the films that are a) for a mass and very young audience and b) they know are not good enough to be up there when the awards season comes out. The summer, creeping into autumn, there’s always a dearth of very good films. And I haven’t seen anything lately that is really noteworthy.

You touch on your Oscar night coverage in the book, and I wonder if I can put what I think is a myth to you. But I remember watching, and it looked as if it was declining quantities of wine you had on the table in front of you! Was it, and who was partaking of it?

No, no, there was never any wine on the table. Absolutely not. Jesus, no! This was a myth that was put around by the malicious I suppose. Nobody drank, I didn’t drink. When the evening was over I might have a couple of glasses of wine, but certainly not while the programme was on the air!

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I have to ask: you talk in the book when Diana got involved in the SDP back in 1981. And you paint a picture of you and Robert Powell canvassing for them in Stevenage. Just what kind of reaction did people have when the man who reviews films off the telly and the man who played Jesus walk up to them and ask for a vote?

Oh, I think they were kind of intrigued! Everybody was very pleasant, regardless of their political affiliations! Neither Bob nor I were met with hostility. Whether we converted many people I had no idea, but I think people were slightly surprised, and somewhat intrigued to see the pair of us wondering about!

Last question. What do you think Diana would have written about you?

I really don’t know. I honestly don’t, and I have thought about that. I can’t begin to think, because she was a very different kind of writer from me. She would deny that I was romantic in any way whatsoever, but I think deep down I was more romantic than she was. And I think men are more romantic than women. I think woman are far more practical than men, and sensible. I think she would have written a very different book, but I hope it would have been as affectionate as the one I’ve written. But how she would have set about it, I really don’t know!

Barry Norman, thank you very much.

See You In The Morning is out in hardback now.

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