Barry Norman

Jul/Aug 09 issue

Behind Barry Norman’s languid exterior and velveteen voice lies a firebrand who squared up to John Wayne and Robert De Niro. The legendary film critic is now heating up the taste buds of consumers throughout the country with Pickleodeon, his range of spicy onions 

The family recipe I have for pickled onions goes right back to the 19th century and I’ve been using it for years. One evening, our friend tasted some and he had a moment similar to St Paul on the road to Damascus – he said we had to take it to the market. So we teamed up with [food manufacturer] Bennett Opie, who agreed not to put anything out unless I was happy with it first. They produce the onions and I receive royalties.

Radio jar jar
In terms of marketing, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. It actually got a hell of a lot more publicity than I expected. I sent a jar to Chris Evans, who’s an old mate of mine, as he had been bemoaning the fact that you couldn’t buy a decent pickled onion anywhere. So I thought: ‘Chris has got to have a jar.’

He later phoned me live on air and said: ‘I’m going to try one of your onions.’ And I thought, ‘Oh God – if he says they’re horrible that will be the end of it.’ I heard this crunching sound and Chris said: ‘By God, these are fantastic!’

My heart leapt and sales boomed as a result. Generally, people have treated the whole thing in a very light-hearted way – which is absolutely fine because you can’t be solemn about pickled onions.

It’s been a really fun thing to do because it’s so different from all the other things I’ve done in my life. I don’t see why the product should undermine my credibility as a film critic as it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with my previous work. What I’ve always hoped for is that people realise that whatever I said as a film critic was said honestly and with total integrity. I also hope they realise that I wouldn’t just lend my name to something that I didn’t think much of.

You talking to me?
Of course, there have been interviews that have gone badly. I almost had a fight with John Wayne once, and had a stand-up nose-to-nose row with Robert De Niro. But I don’t regret that because I think in both cases I was absolutely justified as they were behaving like twits and right was entirely on my side.

The thing is, movie stars aren’t necessarily interesting people. They may be prettier than the rest of us, but that doesn’t make them brighter. I’m not so arrogant as to believe I’m totally infallible – in some interviews the fault was also on my side, but sometimes they really were just a bit thick.

One regret of mine was not going to David Lean’s 80th birthday party because I had the flu, and he died not long after. I remember talking to Steven Spielberg and telling him that I didn’t go because I didn’t want to give David a cold and he said: ‘Yes, you wouldn’t have been too popular if you had turned out to be the man who killed David Lean.’ So it was probably for the best.

Know your onions

Looking forward, I’d like in a year from now to have the whole range – onions, shallots, gherkins and pickled eggs – in as many supermarkets as possible, where I hope they will sell like mad. At the moment, the recession hasn’t helped the pickle business. For example, Tesco has decided to ease back on other brands and concentrate on its own.

Originally, I’m sure people did buy them because of the novelty value. But what’s been very encouraging is that I’ve had an enormous number of emails from people saying these pickles are the best they’ve ever tasted.