French, the son of an insurance salesman, was educated at the direct grant Bristol Grammar School, Exeter College, Oxford (where he read Law), and undertook post-graduate study in Journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington, on a scholarship.
French entered journalism as a reporter at the Bristol Evening Post in 1957. He was theatre critic of the New Statesman (1967-68) and deputy film critic to David Robinson at The Times for some years. He has been film critic of The Observer since 1978, but had begun writing for the paper in 1963. He has also written for Sight and Sound, and his books include The Movie Moguls: An Informal History of the Hollywood Tycoons (1969) and Westerns, which reappeared in a revised version in 2005. He also wrote the book Cult Movies (1999) together with Karl French, one of his sons.
From 1959 to 1990, when he took early retirement, French was a BBC Radio producer. At first he was a producer on the North American service, but the bulk of his BBC career was for domestic radio. He was a BBC talks producer (1961-67) and then a senior producer for the corporation from 1968. In the 1960s he produced The Critics on the BBC Home Service and from 1974 to 1990 he produced its successor programme Critics' Forum on BBC Radio 3. His appointment as film critic of The Observer was opposed by the then Controller of Radio 3, Stephen Hearst, who felt that it would be impossible for French to be an impartial producer while also working as a regular film critic, but he was overruled by his superior, Howard Newby.
French was named the British Press Awards Critic of the Year in 2009. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to film. At the beginning of May 2013 it was announced that French would retire as film critic for The Observer in August to coincide with his 80th birthday.
French's Swedish-born wife Kersti is a translator; the couple have three sons. Their oldest son, Sean French, is one half of the Nicci French writing team, while his brother, Patrick French, is a doctor.
- Philip French, "My own cinema paradiso", The Observer, 13 April 2008.
- Dennis Griffiths (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the British Press, 1422-1992, London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992, p. 255.
- "Honorary degrees for film critic and scientist", Lancaster University News, January 2007.
- Philip French, "We saw the light, but too late for some", The Observer, 24 June 2007.
- Philip French, "Philip French OBE, Observer writer of 50 years and film critic extraordinaire", The Observer, 29 December 2012.
- Humphrey Carpenter The Envy of the World: Fifty years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1996, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (Phoenix pbk, ISBN 0-7538-0250-3), p. 324.
- Press Gazette, Roll of Honour, accessed 24 July 2011.
- The London Gazette: . 29 December 2012.
- Vanessa Thorpe, "That's a wrap: Philip French, Observer film critic, steps down after 50 years", The Observer, 5 May 2013.
- In Celebration of Philip French, BAFTA webcast, Brighton Festival, 21 April 2008.
- Philip French at The Observer