Few film critics achieve near-celebrity status, but from the 1970s to the late 90s almost anyone in Britain who was interested in films – particularly foreign language films – read Derek Malcolm, who has died at the age of 91, in the Guardian. They followed up his enthusiasms and noted his disappointments avidly, while sometimes finding his even-handed fairness frustrating. That the commercial fate of any non-Hollywood film today may depend on a positive Guardian review is largely down to him. It was Derek’s enthusiasm and occasional bloody-mindedness that initially forged the paper’s reputation for critical authority.
Derek came to film criticism by a meandering route. He had been educated at Eton and Merton College Oxford and, having had no luck in finding a job in publishing, his slight build and horsemanship led him to enjoy some success as a National Hunt jockey (13 wins). Never one to seek laboriousness or mundanity, however, he found horse racing “too hard” and a subsequent bout of acting in repertory companies, he said, “bored me shitless”. After trying journalism at the Daily Sketch and the Gloucestershire Echo, he came to the Guardian under editor Alastair Hetherington, at first as a features sub-editor, then as the paper’s racing correspondent before Hetherington took a successful risk in 1971 by having him succeed Richard Roud as chief film critic.
A revered notable of the film world by the time I began to write about cinema (in 1989), Derek had campaigned for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) to be seen as the director intended and fought the moral panic that attended the home video boom in the early 80s by defending the so-called ‘video-nasty’ Nightmares of a Damaged Brain (1981) in court. Alongside his Guardian role he’d had a few successful years as the artistic director of the London Film Festival, was known for his enthusiasm for Indian directors such as Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mani Kaul, Ketan Mehta and Mrinal Sen, and had presented BBC2’s arthouse cinema strand The Film Club.
Yet, to a newcomer such as myself, he was always approachable and helpful – if also sardonic and full of mischievous promptings. Getting to know Derek, one realised that it was his patrician confidence, irreverent charm and anecdotal wit – forged no doubt at Eton (which he hated) and in a childhood of considerable isolation – that made him so popular. If you came across Derek talking to someone on the Croisette in Cannes, they would be glowing with such pleasure you’d assume they must be an old friend, but when the other departed, Derek would turn to you and ask “Who is that?”
Although Derek’s run as the Guardian critic came to an end in 1999, his presence on the festival and weekly reviewing circuits only intensified. His parting gesture to Guardian readers – a championing of 100 films each by a different director – was notable for only a third of it being devoted to American cinema and for reflecting his generation’s idea of the cinephile canon. In 2003, he succeeded Alexander Walker as film critic of the London Evening Standard at a moment when digital media was coming into play. The increasing number of films and their extending length towards and beyond the two-hour mark became regular complaints of his.
That same year, publication of Derek’s memoir Family Secrets, written at the urging of his wife, the author Sarah Gristwood, revealed shocking events he had discovered when he was only 16. His then elderly father, Douglas, scion of a wealthy Scottish family, had been a Royal Artillery officer during the First World War, his mother, Dorothy, an adulterous singer. In 1917 Douglas shot Dorothy’s lover Anton Baumberg dead, reputedly after Baumberg refused a duel, and went on to be the first man in British legal history to be acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. Following the verdict, the couple were obliged to stay unhappily together. No wonder the young Derek found a passion for the transports of cinema.
We at Sight and Sound, when I was editor, enjoyed Derek’s sagacity in generous talks he gave to students of our film journalism course. Personally, I will miss being called ‘dear boy’ by him as one of our mutually teasing skirmishes about the BFI or the state of British film would begin. Although he gave up reviewing for the Standard in 2009, he continued to report festivals for them, his presence guaranteed by his being the honorary president of the International Federation of Film Critics (Fipresci). Countless attendees at those festivals will now miss his mirthful mocking of pomposity.
Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner accurately summed up his talents thus: “[Derek] was unafraid to call out mediocre films by acclaimed directors, and eager to champion new voices whenever their work met his standards.” As Derek himself wrote more than once of other passing legends, we shall not see his like again.
- Derek Malcolm, 12 May 1932 to 15 July 2023
Stream new, cult and classic films
A free trial, then just £4.99/month or £49/year.Try 14 days free