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Halliwell's Film Guide


Halliwell's Film Guide

Robert James Leslie Halliwell[1] (23 February 1929 – 21 January 1989) was a British film critic and encyclopaedist (and television impresario) who in 1965 compiled The Filmgoer's Companion, the first one-volume encyclopaedia devoted to all aspects of the cinema.[2] He followed it a dozen years later with Halliwell's Film Guide, another monumental work of effort and devotion. In an age long before the internet, Halliwell's books were regarded as the number one source for movie information, and his name became synonymous with film knowledge and research. Times journalist Anthony Quinton wrote in 1977:
'Immersed in the enjoyment of these fine books, one should look up for a moment to admire the quite astonishing combination of industry and authority in one man which has brought them into existence.'[3]

In his capacity as chief buyer for the ITV network, Halliwell was further responsible for bringing to British television screens some of the most popular films and shows of the 1970s and 80s, including The Six Million Dollar Man, Charlie's Angels, The Incredible Hulk, The A-Team, The Winds of War, Jaws, Star Wars and the James Bond movies.[4]

Halliwell's promotion of the cinema through his books and seasons of 'golden oldies' on Channel 4 won him awards from the London Film Critics' Circle[5] and the British Film Institute,[6] as well as a posthumous BAFTA.[7]

Early life

Born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1929, Halliwell was captivated by films from an early age. He grew up during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the period when the big studios churned out movies on a production line basis and wide-eyed cinemagoers packed the dream palaces. Halliwell and his mother Lily went almost nightly to the cinema as it offered them an escape from the grim reality of life in a soot-covered mill town.[8]

In 1939, Halliwell won a scholarship to Bolton School and after National Service he studied English Literature at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. As a young man he was a cheerful, often ebullient individual who ran film societies, performed in amateur theatre productions and inspired those around him with his seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the cinema.[9]

The Rex Cinema, Cambridge

After graduating with a 2:1 honours degree, Halliwell worked briefly for Picturegoer magazine in London before returning to Cambridge to manage the Rex Cinema from 1952 to 1956. Under his management the place became extremely popular with the Cambridge undergraduate community, showing classic and vintage films such as The Blue Angel, Citizen Kane and Destry Rides Again. The Cambridge Evening News reported, 'students felt their periods at Cambridge were incomplete without the weekly visit to the Rex.'[10]

In 1955, after the British Censor had banned the Marlon Brando film The Wild One, Halliwell arranged for Cambridge magistrates to assess the picture. They subsequently granted him a special licence and the Rex became the only cinema in England to show the film.[11]

Television career

Halliwell joined the Rank Organisation in 1956 on a three-year trainee course, after which he became a film publicist for the company.[12] In 1958, he joined Southern Television[13] and was seconded to Granada Television a year later, where he remained for the next thirty years at their offices in London's Golden Square.[14] He married Ruth Porter in 1959 and they had one son.[15]

Initially appointed Cecil Bernstein's assistant,[16] Halliwell's reputation for vast cinema knowledge led to him gaining the role of Film Adviser to Granada's show Cinema, which was the most popular arts programme on television during the 1960s.[17] He was given responsibility for buying TV shows and in 1968 became the chief film buyer for the whole ITV network, a role he maintained throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s.[18]

Travelling to Hollywood twice a year to view the latest TV pilots and film offerings, and to trade fairs in Cannes and Monte Carlo, Halliwell became a major player in the television industry. TV mogul Sir Paul Fox said of him:
'I cannot praise Leslie enough for his ethics, for his negotiating skills, and for his knowledge of the industry. The studios appreciated him as a fellow professional and had great, great respect for him at all levels.'[19]
In 1982, at the personal invitiation of Jeremy Isaacs, he became buyer and scheduler of U.S. films for Channel 4. In keeping with the channel's intention to appeal to specialist audiences, Halliwell focused primarily on the 1930s and 40s. Over the next few years the channel showed hundreds of vintage movies in dedicated seasons, with many titles introduced by film-makers such as Samuel Goldwyn Jnr, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Cinema fans and critics alike greatly appreciated Halliwell's efforts, with Jeremy Isaacs saying he had made an 'unsurpassed contribution' to the channel's success.[20] The British Film Institute gave Halliwell an award in 1985 'for the selection and acquisition of films with a view to creative scheduling.'[21] Author and film historian Jeffrey Richards wrote:
'For lovers of the golden age of the cinema like myself, Channel 4 became a source of unalloyed delight as time and again one encountered films one had only ever read about and never expected to see.'[22]

In addition, Halliwell presented two television series celebrating the British wartime documentary movement: Home Front, for Granada in 1982, and The British at War for Channel 4 two years later. Both featured classic Ministry of Information productions such as Listen to Britain, Desert Victory and The True Glory.[23]


The Filmgoer's Companion

Published in 1965, Halliwell's pioneering work sold ten thousand copies on its first run, including four thousand in the United States. Over the next ten years the book gained a reputation as the number one source for film information. Many critics raved about his work but others were less enthusiastic, detecting small slivers of subjectivity among the facts, as well as a bias towards older films. Halliwell himself edited nine editions of the Companion.[24]

Gene Siskel wrote in 1975, "There is a well-developed consensus among film scribes that Leslie Halliwell's The Filmgoer's Companion is the single most valuable reference book on film."[25]

Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1979, "The referrer needs an iron will to look up only one fact."[26]

TV presenter Denis Norden said "The Filmgoer's Companion is to films what Wisden is to cricket."[27]

Halliwell's Film Guide

First published in 1977, this book incorporated capsule information on some 8000 English-speaking titles. By the time of Halliwell's death in 1989, the Film Guide had doubled in size. He acknowledged his predecessors in the introduction to the first edition:

I salute especially the work of Leonard Maltin, James Robert Parish, Denis Gifford, Douglas Eames and the unsung anonymous heroes who compiled the reviews of the BFI's Monthly Film Bulletin during the fifties and sixties.


In addition to receiving much praise for his work, Halliwell came under fire from journalists and critics for his pithy comments and dismissive stance on more recent films. His devotion to the Golden Age of Hollywood left him increasingly out of touch with modern attitudes. Long-time Observer film critic Philip French wrote that Halliwell 'isn't a scholar, critic or cineaste, but rather a movie buff, a man who knows the credits of everything but the value of very little.'[29] Jim Emerson of the Chicago Tribune called Halliwell 'something of a grumpy old English fuddy-duddy ... he rarely has anything good to say about any movie made after 1960'.[30]

Halliwell's attitude was amply demonstrated by the star rating system he employed in the Film Guide. He rated films from zero stars to four, and the spread of four-star films across the decades clearly demonstrated a bias towards older films. Indeed, the most recent film to receive top marks was 1967's for more information on the guide in general and the four-star films in particular.

Halliwell's Television Companion

Halliwell's third encyclopaedic work began life as the Teleguide in 1979. Disappointed with the first edition, Halliwell teamed up with Sunday Telegraph critic Philip Purser to produce Halliwell's Television Companion, which ran for a further two editions.[31]


Halliwell retired from the television industry in 1986 but continued to edit his film guides.[32] He wrote a regular TV article for the Daily Mail in 1987[33] and published a number of historical and critical works about the cinema. In addition, he published three volumes of ghost stories inspired by M. R. James.[34]


Halliwell died of cancer of the oesophagus at the Princess Alice hospice in Esher, Surrey.[35]

Halliwell's favourite films

This list of Leslie Halliwell's favourite films was originally published in the fifth edition of the Film Guide.[36]


"I know people think I'm old-fashioned. And I only hope I'm wrong about the way in which television today is headed. But the answer lies with the public and what they will finally accept ... they have the on-off switch."[37]

"Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [1931] has excitement and ingenuity in every frame: there is no way at all in which it could be improved by the techniques of the eighties."[38]

"Nostalgia is only a trendy word to describe something which people have at last learned to appreciate because it has been taken away from them."[39]

"Halliwell's Hundred and Halliwell's Harvest are dedicated to the proposition that art should not be despised because it is popular."[40]

Cultural references

  • Halliwell's Film Guide is mentioned in Irvine Welsh's short story Snuff, about an isolated man whose life is centered around watching every film from the book.


A biography, Halliwell's Horizon, written by Michael Binder, was published in 2011.[41]



External links

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