Poll Vaulting

"Not another bloody poll!", exclaimed a BBC colleague today as he found half of his Guardian newspaper taken up with the 'news' that "Citizen Kane" is the best film of all time. Again. Oh how he raged about the surfeit of such polls.

My first thought was to agree: he's right, there are too many polls and lists and top tens and top hundreds - we exist in an age where history and culture can only be defined by putting things in order of which is the best or which is the people's favourite.

What's worse is that The Guardian - along with every other newspaper desperate to fill its pages with something, anything, that's not about anything unsexy like Africa - will happily report (if that's not too journalistic a term) that some magazine or radio programme or internet site has polled its readers/listeners/visitors about some matter of no import like their favourite view in England.

If these polls - pointless, self-serving, navel-inspecting wastes of air that they are - just appeared in their respective magazines, or on their respective radio shows or websites, that would be fine. But because our newspapers are so fond of media fluff ("BBC doubts over Neil at Newsnight," runs another vital story in today's Guardian - hold the front page!), the rest of the country must be subjected to the scoop that "Citizen Kane" is the best film in the world of all-time again.

But hold hard! This particular poll is among the more respected and dignified of its ilk: it's the Sight and Sound magazine international critics and directors' poll. The august journal only conducts it once every ten years (how about that for restraint?), so you could hardly accuse them of doing it to flog a few extra copies.

Indeed, if you look back over all the previous polls, it forms a fascinating thumbnail sketch of the movie tastes of film academia. "Citizen Kane" won ten years ago. And ten years before that. And ten years before that! What does that tell us? That "Citizen Kane" is perhaps the greatest film of all time?

Many have a bugbear with the Sight and Sound poll - that it dismisses anything made in the last 20 years. The most recent film in its last poll, ten years ago, was "2001: A Space Odyssey", made in 1968. This time, "Raging Bull" has been allowed in - ancient indeed, having come out in 1980. You can't blame the mag itself for this era-blindness - they've been desperately trying to promote more modern films in the run-up to the poll, but to little avail. Michael Winner's "Parting Shots" will have to wait until it's 20 years old to qualify.

British films are, once again, poorly represented ("The Third Man" scrapes in at 35), but again, you can't lead this particular jury. Less scrupulous magazines might 'tweak' their readers' polls for a more rounded result (I know this to be the case - I have worked in magazines), but not Sight and Sound. If nothing else, their latest poll is a true reflection of the critics and film-makers polled.

Not that they asked me. Jonathan Ross, yes, but not the presenter of Radio 4's weekly film programme. How different that list might have looked if they had. "The Poseidon Adventure" in the Top 10? Ah well, maybe in ten years' time...

Andrew Collins presents Back Row on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 17th August at 5.30pm. You can listen live to Back Row then or Radio 4 at any time using RealPlayer.