Alexander Walker, who has died aged 73, was chief film critic of the London Evening Standard for 43 years. He was one of the last working journalists to have been appointed by Lord Beaverbrook, and one of the most distinguished.
While his fellow reviewers at critics’ screenings would slouch in their seats, Walker, always impeccably dressed in a light grey suit, would sit bolt upright – and the bouffant hairstyle he cultivated for many years made it unprofitable to sit directly behind him. The style was the man: elegant, exuberant and painstaking. Walker reviewed with a combination of passionate interest and encyclopaedic knowledge that none of his colleagues could rival. To maintain this unmatched combination into his 70s made him, in the eyes of many of his peers, the most outstanding film critic of the post-war years.
There was steel under his urbanity. Walker had a confidence in his judgements about films and the film industry which was grounded in his brilliant academic career. The only son of a commercial traveller, he was born in Portadown, County Armagh, on 22 March, 1930. The Northern Ireland Home Service broadcast a radio play he wrote when he was 15. He read political philosophy at Queen’s University, Belfast, then went to the College d’Europe in Bruges before moving to Ann Arbor University in Michigan, US, to lecture on comparative government and political thought. This training gave him weapons with which to mount fearless campaigns in later years against such targets as the Film Council and lottery-funded film-making.
Yet his love of the cinema never deserted him, and renewed itself every week in his Evening Standard reviews. Walker recalled being taken to see Buck Jones in a Western at the Portadown Regal on his fourth birthday, and sitting entranced. He pestered his mother into taking him there regularly – and later, when his mother broke her glasses, he would report back to her on the film he’d seen, complete with snippets of dialogue and his youthful judgement on whether it was any good.
More than any of his fellow critics, Walker had an understanding of the workings of Hollywood, and of film financing, which regularly gave an extra dimension to his reviews. This was the result of painstaking research for the books he wrote – more than 20 of them, notably on Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison and Vivien Leigh. He also wrote the authorised biography of Peter Sellers and edited the harrowing journals of Rachel Roberts. Many of the stars were his friends, and his friendship with Stanley Kubrick produced two of his most valued critical studies.
Several honours came Walker’s way. He was a governor of the British Film Institute, served on the board of the British Screen Advisory Council, and sat on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival – the French, who greatly respected him, made him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
France was where he most liked to be – although for a while it vied for his affections with the Philippines, where Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos invited him to set up a film festival and preside over the nascent Filipino film industry.
In his well-guarded Maida Vale flat, Walker kept a photograph of himself being presented with the Award of the Golden Eagle by President Marcos, with troops lined up to attention in the background. He had a fine collection of paintings, including a Paul Klee that he was bequeathed by his early patron, Godfrey Winn.
Walker could be blistering about films he thought overly violent and exploitative, or those that he felt travestied the politics of his Ulster homeland. He thought Crash the most corrupt film ever made. His precisely articulated disgust for Ken Russell’s The Devils, on live television, famously provoked Russell into beating him over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Standard. His other crusading hatred was smoking: he gave his Who’s Who recreation as “persecuting smokers”.
Walker was an intensely private man. Although he was close to the late publicist Margaret Gardner, the cinema was his life – or all of it that he cared to divulge. On the two occasions when he was in hospital – once following a skiing accident, the other after being knocked down by a car – he gave the Evening Standard as his next of kin. Yet he could be immensely convivial. He was a brilliant anecdotalist, delivering his stories in perfect sentences. Nothing about him was hurried or unconsidered, least of all the thought he gave to minor films which other reviewers might cast off with a flip phrase.
In later years, Walker slept badly and frequently worked through the night, which accounted for his prolific output. He was writing reviews and working on his latest book when he went into the London Clinic last week, dying unexpectedly on the morning of 15 July while having tests for cancer.