Philip French, one of the titans of British film criticism, has died of a heart attack at the age of 82. He was the Observer’s film critic for 35 years, having written for the newspaper since 1963, and had just marked a half-century of writing for Sight & Sound, a magazine he had begun reading as a teenager.
French began his journalism career at the Bristol Evening Post in 1957, and also served stints as theatre critic of the New Statesman and as deputy film editor (to David Robinson) at the Times. In parallel, he worked as a producer for BBC Radio, notably producing The Critics for the BBC Home Service and then Critics’ Forum for Radio 3. He also authored a number of films books, from Movie Moguls: An Informal History of the Hollywood Tycoons in 1969 to a BFI Classic on Wild Strawberries (with his wife Kersti) in 1995, Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre in 2005, Censoring the Moving Image (with Julian Petley) in 2008 and I Found it at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinephile in 2011.
A scrupulous, unstinting and life-long student of cinema, he had clearly established himself as its most erudite historian amongst any of his peers in the British mainstream press, long before finally retiring from his weekly film-reviewing duties in 2013, on his 80th birthday. He continued to review DVDs for both that publication and books for Sight & Sound, where his last contributions were a major review of J.R. Jones’s new biography of Robert Ryan for our July 2015 issue and, for our October Female Gaze campaign issue, a short appreciation of Laila Mikkelsen’s 1981 Little Ida, which he described as “one of the best, least judgemental treatments of fraternisation with the enemy during WWII and the terrible revenge taken by those involved at the end of hostilities.”
In 2013 he was awarded both an OBE (for services to film) and a BFI Fellowship for his outstanding contribution to film culture. At the special awards ceremony at the BFI Southbank for the latter award he told the assembled audience: “It is a great honour indeed for me to be offered a BFI Fellowship, and I accept with gratitude and alacrity. The BFI has been an important part of my life ever since I first bought a copy of Sight & Sound magazine on Newport station in 1951 and especially since I became a regular contributor to Sight & Sound in 1965.” We were deeply honoured to be able to publish a share of his prolific and invaluable work.