Richard Hardie Interviews Chris Tookey - Author and Film Critic
Updated: Feb 19
Previously blogged on Richard Hardie's blog here.
My guest tonight is an English film critic who has written for both the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Not one to follow the crowd, he frequently disagrees with his contemporaries and has been known to be quite vocal in his criticism. But that’s surely the job of a critic! All film companies dread owning one of Tookey’s Turkeys!
Chris Tookey is always interesting and can often be controversial. Tonight he will be Chris Tookey!
Chris, many thanks for joining us. Tell me, how did you first get into journalism?
I first succumbed at Oxford, where I read History and then Politics, Philosophy and Economics. I was first rock critic and then Editor of Isis, the university magazine. When I left university, I had a choice being a theatre director, a composer of musicals, a journalist or a politician (I was a Liberal, by the way.) I’d been involved with all of these at Oxford, at a reasonably professional level.
I plumped for the theatre as I thought it would help me combine writing, composing, directing and producing, but after two years I was given the chance to move into television, initially producing and directing for ATV and then as a freelance – which I managed to combine with writing ten musicals, all produced professionally.
In my spare time, I started doing interviews with well-known authors for Books and Bookmen. As a result of that, I was asked to review films on TV and then TV as a whole for the Sunday Telegraph, which I managed to combine with my directing.
But after a few years of that, Miriam Gross invited me to be the paper’s film critic, which required me to attend screenings on Mondays and Tuesdays and sometimes Fridays, so at that point I had to decide between journalism and directing. Having already worked as a director for 13 years and become dissatisfied with the kind of commissioning that was going on in TV, I chose writing. Three years later, I was recruited by the Daily Mail to be their filmcritic, and a couple of decades later here I still am. Although being a critic still strikes me as less than wholly creative, I have used my spare time to write three novels, which my agent is currently trying to place with publishers.
Not the easiest thing in the worlkd, as all writers know only too well! The job of a film critic would seem to be the perfect life for any film buff, but what are the down sides?
I’m probably as much a books, theatre and music buff as I am a film fan. But yes, it is mainly a pleasure to be paid to watch films – though there are times, usually after seeing thirteen bad movies in a row, where it can remove the will to live. It’s at that point where it’s only too possible to seize on a film that’s only average and praise it to the skies. It’s such a relief.
The other down side to being a critic is that everyone thinks they can be one. Well, of course anyone can be a bad critic. To be a good one requires taste, writing talent, brains, experience and negative capability (being able to see things from multiple points of view, not only your own). Not enough people realize that. It’s tiresome to be told you’re a moron online by people who can’t spell or punctuate, and think Transformers 2 is a work of genius.
Some years ago you criticised the film Crash, do you still feel that screen violence is desensitising?
I know that screen violence is desensitising, because it’s desensitised me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to become a copycat killer, but I’ve undoubtedly been hardened to behaviour and violence that most people would find extremely shocking, and rightly so. It’s quite difficult not to lose one’s moral bearings.
My objection to Crash was not so much moral as pragmatic. I’ve never been a big fan of censorship, mainly because I’ve always mistrusted censorious people in authority, but I was very much aware that the British Board of Film Classification had traditionally refused to give an 18 certificate to movies where non-consensual sex was involved, either to titillate the audience or to suggest that it was somehow pleasurable for the victim. Until Crash, the most famous example of that was Straw Dogs.
Crash was all about people gaining sexual pleasure from pain, mutilation and death. The masochistic victims were just as enthusiastic as the sadistic perpetrators. I didn’t see then how the BBFC could possibly award it an 18 certificate under its own guidelines, and I still don’t.
After that decision, the flood-gates of sado-masochism opened, and we’ve had numerous films come through which are far more more brutal and perverted: films like Baise-Moi,Hostel, A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede 2. And, of course, there’s been a whole new genre of “torture porn”.
Hollywood is fond of congratulating itself for films that supposedly encourage audiences to do great things or become more liberal and tolerant. I’m sure we can all think of films that have won awards for civic virtues, rather than artistic ones.
I think film-makers need to come clean on the fact that films also have the power to influence society for ill. I am very much aware that children see lots of films that they are psychologically ill-equipped to deal with, and I have no doubt that violent films – and especially ones that involve sexual violence – can, especially if they are viewed to the exclusion of other, more civilised movies - have the harmful effect of normalising bad behaviour for certain people, especially if they are immature, psychologically damaged or just plain dumb.
Are you in favour of stronger screen censorship, or more rigid viewing categories?
Essentially, I’m in favour of stronger self-censorship by film-makers. I regard the most irresponsibly pernicious films as a kind of environmental pollution. I wish directors like Eli Roth (who’s behind the Hostel films) would stop, but sadly they’re making too much easy money to give up now. Similarly, I think Quentin Tarantino is a potentially brilliant writer-director who might achieve that potential if he became less hung up on extreme violence to please the fanboys.
As a critic you have to watch all genres of film and be objective, whereas the average film-goer tends to like a narrow field. Do you find it easy leaving your personal tastes behind?
I am anything but objective, and any critic who pretends to be objective is a liar. No two people watch the same film. We’re all, to some extent, influenced by our background, tastes and aspirations. I do try to be fair-minded and try to watch films from three angles simultaneously. One is from my own, subjective viewpoint. The second is from the film-makers’ point of view: what were they trying to achieve, and how far did they succeed? The third angle is to try and work out what the audience is for a certain film, even if it isn’t me. If I have room, I usually attempt in my reviews to give some indication of what the core audience for a film is. That’s because I’m writing for millions of people who read the Mail, Mail Online or my website www.movie-film-review.com, whereas most of my colleagues are writing for a few thousand, or even a few hundred.
As a private person, rather than a critic, what sort of film do you love to see?
I genuinely like the best films in every genre. I really liked The Cabin In the Woods last year, because it was an intelligent slasher movie. And I liked Wild Bill, even though it was that most tired of concepts, a British gangster film: it simply struck me as one of the best in its genre. I enjoy anything that’s talented.
But I do have a soft spot for musicals and I was delighted that Les Miserables turned out to be as good as it was. My favourite musicals, however, have all been better on stage than on celluloid, so I would love to see a revival of that genre, which would allow us to see and hear more of the best musicals performed with present-day production values. I’m not holding my breath, though, and I’m very happy to keep watching great thrillers like LA Confidential, ground-breaking movies like Fight Club or Adaptation, or imaginative fantasies like The Lord of the Rings.
The important thing for a critic is to attend each film with the willingness to be receptive. It’s heard to attend an Adam Sandler film with any degree of optimism after witnessing the rest of his oeuvre, but honestly I do try.
What’s your favourite film of all time and favourite actor?
I think the greatest movies have the power always to move you. SoCasablanca and it’s a Wonderful Life always work for me. There are also a few films that I think are great and hardly anyone else does. Those are often comedies, and comedy is notoriously subjective. Here, I’m thinking of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Stanley Donen’s Movie Movie and Isn’t She Great. I sincerely think they’re wonderful films, funny and truthful about the human condition, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. We’re all different, and that’s a very good thing.
Are you disciplined as a journalistic writer with a set routine and preferred place to write? I’m extremely disciplined. I see movies Monday and Tuesday and write about them on Wednesday morning. There’s no time for writer’s block. I carry that discipline through to writing novels or musicals. I have never missed a deadline, and unlike my old pal Douglas Adams I would feel horribly guilty if I ever missed one. I never like to feel I’ve let anyone down.
****************** Many years ago you were very much involved in the musicalHard Times. Do you have any plans to get involved with the stage again?
Yes, I wrote, directed and co-producedHard Times, which I still feel deserved a much longer run than the 100 performances or so it achieved in the West End. It’s good to know from the many letters we received that many of those who did see it really loved it and came to see it three or four times. It’s only one of eleven musicals I’ve written but I still think it had some of the best songs and carried the most emotional punch. I am writing another musical right now, based on the Arabian Nights. I’m enjoying that and hope to get it on some day – though right now it’s on the back burner, as I’m concentrating on completing my third novel.
So you write fiction?
Yes. My first book is called Superhero and it’s a comic fantasy. Very English, it’s a combination of Mervin Peake and P.G. Wodehouse, or a more grown-up J.K.Rowling. My second, The Trophy Hunter, is a comic thriller about a footballer turned private investigator, who’s addicted to the computer game Football Manager – hopefully, a bit like Raymond Chandler meets Simon Brett. My third, Another Fine Mess, is another comic thriller. which is a sequel to the first one and is about a killer who apparently targets film critics. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re all, I hope, funny. That’s because my world-view is essentially ironic and comedic. I hope some brave soul will publish them. And so does my agent.
If there was one thing you could change in the film industry what would it be?
I’d give everyone who makes films a greater sense of social responsibility. But it ain’t gonna happen.
You’ve attended many film premieres. Do you have a favourite moment from one of them?
I hate film premieres as a rule. They go on forever because – rightly – the stars want to meet their public and sign autographs. Good for them, but not so great for the audience waiting for the film to start. Oddly enough, my fondest memories are of two movies this year – Les Mis and Skyfall – because both films far surpassed my expectations and, I think, the audience’s. It’s always a pleasure to be at the birth of something great.
One last question. What is one thing would you like to achieve during the next 5 years?
I wouldn’t mind being less often insulted by morons, but I genuinely enjoy doing what I do. I’m extremely fortunate to feel fulfilled with both my job and the work I do in my spare time, writing and composing. I also have a good family life and friends, so really I’ve no cause for complaint.
Chris, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and thank you so much for your time, as well as for agreeing to meet my blog community.
You can read all about Chris on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Tookey
His film reviews are in the Daily Mail and on his website, uncensored, at www.movie-film-review.com