Robbie Collin has enjoyed a successful career in film criticism. Having started on a graduate scheme at the notorious News of the World, he is now a film critic at The Telegraph and regular at Cannes. You’ve probably heard him filling in for Mark Kermode on 5 Live or seen him on the new BBC series The Life Cinematic. However, this glamourous and high-flying career hides some more humble roots. Roots that find themselves in the pages of this very paper.
How did you first get involved in The Saint?
“When I went to the St Andrews open day I picked up a copy of The Saint and I really liked the idea of getting involved with that, and then in Fresher’s week made contact”, he told us. But even before joining our paper, Robbie had an interest in journalism, having worked on his secondary school’s newspaper.
Robbie went on to become Features Editor and then Editor-in-Chief from 2001-2002.
“I was a fairly sort of socially pathetic creature and threw myself into my degree and into the student newspaper and that was kind of at the expense of all else.”, he said with jocular candour. “It helped that my then girlfriend and now wife, she was doing a year abroad in France so I had a lot of spare time to busy myself with all this stuff. So certainly, when I was editing The Saint my time was spent nearly 50/50 between that and my degree. I fell in love with doing both. Both were immensely fulfilling in that way that you kids don’t realise yet- you’ll miss this. When I left university, it was specifically working for a newspaper that I wanted to do.”
The pell-mell pace of balancing coursework and extracurricular journalism has left Robbie with an enduring aptitude for writing under pressure. “It’s weird, I’ve just been on deadline before talking to you now, and it’s as miserable as it always has been”, he told us. “But there’s something about the sense of being constantly on deadline that I actually find really fulfilling. And this push, that if you don’t write something there’s a blank page going into the paper the next day and you sort of have to get it done and get on with it- I find that quite a fulfilling part of the job- so it was specifically newspapers that I wanted to work for.”
We were keen to find out some more about Robbie’s time at university outside of The Saint office, where he, like us, spent entirely too much time.
Robbie, who studied English & Philosophy, spoke with great enthusiasm about his time as an undergraduate – and especially of philosophy lecturer Dr Berys Gaut. “He was a big noise in philosophy of art when I was there, but his specific interest was philosophy of film and he put together a really great philosophy of film module.” Asked if he feels his studies has shaped his writing style, he said: “I think because I had a grounding in the philosophical side, that gave me confidence that I could find something interesting to say. Part of the trick when you’re writing for a tabloid, or any newspaper, is saying something that makes sense to your readership and not getting lost in these self-indulgent flurries into stuff that just isn’t interesting or you fail to make interesting- it might be interesting but you haven’t explained it properly. But I think having done some proper academic study I did feel I could have something interesting to say about this.” Indeed, the ability to say something interesting with clarity and a manner appropriate to the target audience is something Robbie prioritises. “you write for your readership, you have your own voice, but you have to take into account what people want to read and in what register- so maybe…having this confidence that (film) was something I’d been able to write in academic depth previously meant that I wasn’t too stupid for the job (at the Telegraph). It’s about being able to say what you want to say in a way that your readers’ will enjoy reading.”
After graduating St Andrews, Robbie pursued this ambition by gaining a place on a graduate scheme (which he notes were far more widespread then than now) with the News of the World. He recalled fondly the “gallows camaraderie” among colleagues, and noted that stereotypes around the broadsheet/tabloid divide don’t necessarily hold true. “There’s not this social hierarchy of everyone working for broadsheets being incredibly well read and intelligent and your dream dinner party guest and everyone from tabloids being scum of the earth and terrible people – they are all genuinely, in my limited experience, nice folk who I like talking to and spending time with”. While grateful for the experience, however, he didn’t pretend his choice of publication didn’t raise a few eyebrows. “It was not a path a lot of people expected me to take coming out of university. Working for what was at the time a notorious red top, tabloid paper”
“I remember telling my lecturers at St Andrews… Douglas Dunn in the English department, I remember him putting his head in his hands when I told him what he was going to do, arguably fair enough.”
It wasn’t just his lecturers who were taken aback. “You know those terrible Christmas letters, where parents go into immense detail about what the kids have been doing, achievements, all this stuff? Basically, for about four years I just dropped out of those letters because they didn’t want to be sharing that I was working for the News of the World, but when I got a job at The Telegraph that changed. ‘You may have recalled we have another son, now he’s at a real newspaper’”.
Robbie also shared some insights on the art of film criticism and the state of the business. There’s an exercise he recommends for aspiring critics. “Something I used to do a lot when I was starting out — looking at critics I admired writing down one of their sentences and adjusting parts of it to see how it could be changed. What the mechanics of the sentence were, how the rhythm worked. And if it was a joke, how you’d lead someone on to the punchline successfully without it being too clumsy.” He also offered some advice on the delicate art of a good opening sentence, noting that sometimes a film simply serves up an image or scenario that perfectly encapsulates the whole thing – with the recent flop Doolittle delivering a particularly unpleasant example. “There’s a scene later on in that where Robert Downey Jr is rummaging around inside a dragon’s bottom… It’s just such a ridiculously humiliating spectacle, that you watch and think come on this is it in a nutshell.” If that has piqued your curiosity, you can find a graphic conjuring of said scene, with allusion to bagpipes, in the opening to Robbie’s review of Doolittle in The Telegraph. He is not fixed in his methods, however. “Sometimes it comes to you like that – other times you finish writing the review then find the line in what you’ve written and think ‘yes, that’s the opening line’.”
He acknowledges that film criticism is a changed game these days, where reviews are only one part of “a larger ecosystem”, and big blockbuster films are likely to embargo reviews until very close to release in order to control the flow of information – especially if they don’t expect kind notices (perhaps unsurprisingly, Sonic The Hedgehog is named as an example). Of course, that isn’t the only way in which the business is changing – Robbie is keenly aware that criticism, along with the rest of the arts world, is in the midst of an overdue reckoning with concerns of representation and diversity. Asked about such discourse, he is unhesitating in his answer. “Fundamentally it’s been productive. Because if you are like me, slap bang in the middle of the straight, white, middle-class, married male demographic, it sensitises you to ways of thinking that you wouldn’t have necessarily been sensitised to. And that can only be to the good.” He’s been vocal on the matter in his writing, recently dubbing the overwhelmingly white BAFTA nominations “embarrassing”.
“You look at that list and you can say Joaquin Phoenix is a very talented actor so that makes sense, Leonardo DiCaprio was very entertaining in that film — fine. So, on a person by person basis all the nominations make sense. But your immediate reaction as a critic is ‘What does this tell us about the totality of what films these people have been thinking about?’ ‘What’s missing and what’s stupidly missing’”
“The thing with BAFTA that always riles me is that there are British non-white actresses (who they don’t recognise)… We need to think about what performances we should be looking out for, which ones particularly are seen as BAFTA worthy. Cynthia Erivo for example was in Harriet…she’s ludicrously talented and exactly the type of person BAFTA should be championing and the membership should be getting behind. Possibly because it was a slave narrative they thought its American and it’s not for us, that’s to give them the credit of not just being racist about it.”
He’s sceptical, however, of those who exploit these legitimate concerns for simplified click-friendly headlines, often reducing art to a numbers game. “People don’t want to think that a box has been ticked, a requirement has been filled- what they want to know is that (people are) choosing awards nominees or discussing films in a way that suggests that…they’ve made these decisions in a way that shows you have a good wide perspective of what is going on (in film)”. He contends that the answer isn’t in counting lines or ticking boxes, but in real systemic change; “everyone has got a part to play, whether it’s BAFTA making sure voters see more films, or it’s the film industry making sure directors from different backgrounds are getting the chance to work on a substantial stage, or its critics saying to their editors ‘we need to go to bat for this film because it’s a great one…even if it doesn’t seem like an obvious choice’.
Finally, he offered some words of advice for today’s aspiring journalists. “Value your writing, it’s not something you do for free, because a lot of people get into this trap where being published is a privilege and you just give reviews and features to prominent websites for nothing. You better believe that they are getting paid but the writer gets nothing. Build your own portfolio by having a blog, but if you want this to be a job you have to treat it as labour. Also, don’t fixate on one job see alternative life paths within writing and criticism. If I had struck out from university with the though it’s film critic or bust, it’s the only thing I can do with my life to give it meaning, then I probably wouldn’t have taken the job at the News of The World and met the people who made me a film critic” One final piece of sage advice that Robbie left us with before we left to type up our interview, “you must at all costs write as if the subject’s never going to read it”. I don’t know if we quite managed to follow that but hopefully we did a good job nevertheless.