Philip French

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This article is about the British film critic and radio producer. For the former Mayor of New York, see Phillip French.
Philip French
Philip French 2013 interview.jpg
French in a 2013 interview
Born Philip Neville French
(1933-08-28)28 August 1933
Liverpool, England, United Kingdom
Died 27 October 2015(2015-10-27) (aged 82)
Cause of death Heart attack
Nationality British
Education Bristol Grammar School
Alma mater Exeter College, Oxford
Indiana University Bloomington
Occupation Film critic
Years active 1957–2013
Spouse(s) Kersti French
Children 3

Philip Neville French OBE (28 August 1933 – 27 October 2015) was a British film critic and former radio producer. French began his career in journalism in the late 1950s, before eventually becoming a BBC Radio producer, and later a film critic,perhaps most famous for his panning films which later went on to become classics such as A Fistful of Dollars. He began writing for The Observer in 1963, and continued to write criticism regularly there until his retirement in 2013.[1]

French was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in December 2012, and upon his death on 27 October 2015, was referred to by his Observer successor Mark Kermode as "an inspiration to an entire generation of film critics".[1]


French was born in Liverpool in 1933.[2] The son of an insurance salesman, he was educated at the direct grant Bristol Grammar School[3] and then at Exeter College, Oxford[4] where he read Law.[5] He undertook post-graduate study in Journalism at Indiana University Bloomington,[6] on a scholarship.[5]

French entered journalism as a reporter at the Bristol Evening Post in 1957.[4] He was theatre critic of the New Statesman between 1967 and 1968[4] and deputy film critic to David Robinson at The Times for some years. French was the film critic of The Observer from 1978, but had begun writing for the paper in 1963.[7] He also wrote for Sight and Sound. French's 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.

Between 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.[4] 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.[8]

French was named the British Press Awards Critic of the Year in 2009.[9] He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to film.[10] French was known for his exceptional memory. Michael Billington, The Guardian‍ '​s theatre critic, was awarded an OBE at the same time as French. Billington recalled: "I ended a congratulatory telephone call with the jokey line, 'See you at the palace.' Quick as a flash, he replied, 'As Dirk Bogarde said to Bill Kerr in Appointment in London in 1953'."[11]

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.[12]


French had a fondness for puns, which arose from his own experience of having a stammer. In an essay on British cinema and the Post Office he began: "I don’t know much about philately, but I know what I lick." His review of a biopic of a reggae singer ended “Honi soit qui Marley pense”. He was also fond of recalling the B-movie actor who, having exchanged life in Hollywood for a typewriter, called his memoir Forgive Us Our Press Passes.[13]

Personal life[edit]

French and his Swedish-born wife Kersti Molin had three sons.[1] Their oldest son, Sean French, is one half of the Nicci French writing team,[14] and another son, Patrick French, is a doctor.[15] French had ten grandchildren.[16]

Prompted by the release of the film, The King's Speech, French wrote about his own stammer.[17]


After years of ill health,[18] French died of a heart attack at the age of 82 on 27 October 2015.[1]

Speaking after his death, The Observer editor John Mulholland said that French was "a giant figure" in the paper’s history and "part of its soul for the past 50 years", adding:

He was a brilliant critic whose erudition and judgement were respected by generations of cinema lovers and film-makers alike. He was also a joy to work with, unfailingly warm and generous to colleagues and to the thousands of readers he encountered. He is revered as one of the most astute critics of his generation, whose love of film shone through his lucid and engaging writing. He will be missed sorely, but he will be remembered with affection and respect by his legion of admirers.[19]

French's son Sean said, "If readers felt they knew him it’s because he put his personality into the writing. He was a very funny man, with a slightly grim comic view of the world and this obsessive thing about puns."[19] The Daily Telegraph said that French was "the doyen of English film critics" and estimated that he had seen some 14,000 films, many of them during the 50 years that he wrote for The Observer.[13]



  1. ^ a b c d Shoard, Catherine (27 October 2015). "Philip French, much-loved Observer film critic, dies at the age of 82". The Guardian (Guardian News and Media Limited). Retrieved 27 October 2015. 
  2. ^ "Birthdays". The Guardian (Guardian News & Media). 28 Aug 2014. p. 35. 
  3. ^ Philip French, "My own cinema paradiso", The Observer, 13 April 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d Dennis Griffiths (ed.) The Encyclopedia of the British Press, 1422–1992, London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992, p. 255.
  5. ^ a b "Honorary degrees for film critic and scientist", Lancaster University News, January 2007.
  6. ^ Philip French, "We saw the light, but too late for some", The Observer, 24 June 2007.
  7. ^ Philip French, "Philip French OBE, Observer writer of 50 years and film critic extraordinaire", The Observer, 29 December 2012.
  8. ^ Humphrey Carpenter The Envy of the World: Fifty years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1996, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (Phoenix paperback, ISBN 0-7538-0250-3), p. 324.
  9. ^ Press Gazette, Roll of Honour, accessed 24 July 2011.
  10. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 60367. p. 11. 29 December 2012.
  11. ^ Billington, Michael (28 October 2015). "Michael Billington on Philip French: A kind man with an encyclopedic memory". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 October 2015. 
  12. ^ Vanessa Thorpe, "That's a wrap: Philip French, Observer film critic, steps down after 50 years", The Observer, 5 May 2013.
  13. ^ a b "Philip French, film critic - obituary". The Daily Telegraph. 31 October 2015. Retrieved 31 October 2015. 
  14. ^ "Meet the perfect partners in crime". Herald Scotland. 10 August 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2015. 
  15. ^ French, Sean (26 February 1999). "My father had an alter ego who rang up women to ask them which of their breasts was the heavier". New Statesman. Retrieved 30 October 2015. 
  16. ^ Stewart, Gary (27 October 2015). "Liverpool-born film critic Philip French has died aged 82". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 31 October 2015. 
  17. ^ Philip French (26 December 2010). "Philip French: my life as a stammerer". The Observer. Retrieved 17 April 2015. 
  18. ^ "Philip French, Veteran UK Film Critic, Dies Aged 82". ABC News. The Associated Press. 27 October 2015. Retrieved 30 October 2015. 
  19. ^ a b Catherine Shoard (27 October 2015). "Philip French, much-loved Observer film critic, dies at the age of 82 | Film". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 October 2015. 

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