Sunday, November 10, 2019


“Deliberately scarifying and highly commercial shocker with little but its art direction to commend it to connoisseurs.”

With Halloween over, we are approaching that time to be thankful again and, for lovers of films, Christmas roots you to your sofa, with the biggest TV premières saved for the festive period. You may also be given a book or two as a present, a popular choice being books with curated, “definitive” lists, with titles like “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” – ironically, updated versions of that book come out each year, so anyone who saw a film displaced by new entries for the 2019 edition, like “Sorry to Bother You” and “The Favourite,” may have to reassess their options.

The above quote, for Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” (1979), came from “Halliwell’s Film Guide,” an originator of the annual film guides that forced their ways into homes each Christmas, from magazine publishers like “Radio Times, “Empire” and “Time Out,” and from critics like Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert. Originally published in 1964, the last “Halliwell’s” edition came in 2008, long after Leslie Halliwell death in 1989, and after other authors took over to rewrite his original opinions – my copy of the 2008 edition kept the first half of Halliwell’s original “Alien” review but, diplomatically, stated the art direction was “on its own terms,” before deeming it a “classic,” which had already been decided elsewhere by then.

Leslie Halliwell was not a film critic, but more people depended on his verdicts than those from critics, because they often determined what films you could watch. Originally the manager of a cinema in Cambridge, and later a publicist for the Rank Organisation, his encyclopaedic knowledge of film made him indispensable in the growing television industry. In 1959, Halliwell joined Granada, a part of the ITV network that grew from a chain of cinemas. By 1964, his initial personal assistant job had been swapped for buying foreign programmes (read: United States) for Granada, and in 1968, Halliwell became the “Head Buyer” for the whole ITV network. For UK audiences, Halliwell is the reason you have really only seen the James Bond and Star Wars films on ITV, along with classic TV series like “Murder, She Wrote,” “The A-Team,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” cementing the good reputation of US TV by keeping the crap away.

When Channel 4 began in 1982, Halliwell also started buying up films and TV shows for them, helping to establish the channel as the place to go for more off-beat stuff, like “Raging Bull,” “Last Tango in Paris,” and “Hill Street Blues,” too offbeat to be shown on the mainstream ITV – in fact, the growth of TV movies and mini-series in the 1970s, like “Columbo,” was the new Hollywood’s answer to needing product that people like Halliwell could actually show to families in the early evening.

Read this way, Leslie Halliwell appears to be the Father Christmas of British television, influencing choices still made today, but some reviews in his guides, like his summary of “Alien,” are indicative of a snobbery that don’t work as helpful criticism – “abysmal apologia for loutish teenage behaviour” does not help you to decide whether “The Breakfast Club” or not, as it does not tell you enough what the film itself is like, while “a feast of hardware and noisy music; not much story,” does not tell you why people still watch “Top Gun.” In fact, my copy of the 2008 guide was solely to check cast and crew details, and awards won – the reviews were the least of it. Perhaps, the rewriting was to help make it more, well, helpful.

Since the last Halliwell’s guide was published, the reference books do appear to have been replaced by “definitive list” books, and by cloud-sourced websites like the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia. No new guides from “Time Out,” “Empire” or “Total Film,” and while “Radio Times” published a guide for 2019, no 2020 edition has so far materialised. It seems the criticism of the films themselves has been replaced with making lists.

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