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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 9th October 2004

Clive James


Clive James is lost for words. "I want to be careful how I phrase this," says the voice at the other end of the phone. "What can I say?" He's trying to think of a witty, offhand way to describe his headlining role in the BBC's Autumn schedule, but nothing springs to mind. Clearly, the one-time contributor to the New York Review of Books is feeling a little uneasy about being pitted against Cilla Black. After a prolonged pause he says, "There are realities about the main channel. You have to get the people into the tent. ... How's that?"

Clive James has always been very sensitive about his image. Trying to extract information from his production unit at the BBC is like talking to the Kremlin. "I'll have to pass you on to the producer," says Wendy, one of his research assistants. But Richard Drewitt, the producer, is no more forthcoming. "Only Clive can answer that," he says. Eventually the man himself comes on the line. "Good question," he says. "But I can't tell you the answer." This would be understandable if I was asking about his waist-line. But all I wanted to know was when his new series was due to start.

He has good reason for being concerned. When he left LWT in 1988 he claimed it was to take advantage of the wider opportunities offered by the Beeb, not because he wanted to go downmarket. However, not only is Saturday Night Clive being switched to BBC1, but his more upmarket programmes like The Clive James Interview have been shelved. From now on, all his energies will be devoted to battling it out with Blind Date.

Clive James has always been troubled by his extraordinary success in the medium he began life by attacking. As The Observer's television critic, he reported on the gaudy excesses of the masses to the intelligentsia, endlessly making smarty-pants remarks about popular entertainers like Dick Emery, Benny Hill and Terry Wogan. Today he is the BBC's highest-paid star and his programmes regularly attract up to 9,000,000 viewers. "I have no qualms about TV," he says. "I can't think of anything more serious than mass communications." This implies he's some kind of democratic interlocutor like David Dimbleby. But on Saturday Night Clive he rarely interviews anyone more heavyweight than Sylvester Stallone's Mum.

How did he feel about about being cast as the thinking man's Jeremy Beadle? "I'm not going to answer that," he snapped. "I'm not going to participate in my own hanging."

Clive James's move to BBC1 will make it harder for him to reconcile his career as a television personality with his need to be taken seriously as a writer. "I don't like TV that is like other TV," he says. "I like the words." Ten years ago, when Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne was being staged at the Apollo, he described himself as "poet". Today he is learning Japanese so he can write a novel about Australia's conflict with Japan during the Second World War. "If I have an important book in me," he wrote in May Week Was In June. "That will be the one."

It may come as a surprise to viewers of Saturday Night Clive to learn that the author of a thousand Dan Quayle jokes is intellectually ambitious. But to anyone familiar with his other work it is all too obvious. He once wrote that Wittgenstein was "part of the larger German aphoristic treasure-house" which was "one of the things I would like my work to be like". Back in his Observer days he was a member of a lunch club which included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Terrence Kilmartin. He'd still like to be thought of as part of the charmed circle of witty, brilliant writers hovering above our heads like some celestial elite.

Yet at the same time he has assidiously pursued a career as a television personality. Janet Street-Porter is fond of recounting how when they worked together on LWT's Saturday Night People he would always place his hand on her arm when she was doing a piece-to-camera. That way the cameraman would have to pan out to include the grinning figure on her left. A colleague of his on The Observer recalls how he would regularly travel to Oxford to visit Walter Pick, one of the most expensive dentists in the world. Far from being unwelcome, his move into the mass market is something he's obviously been planning for years.

In his role as a television presenter he is notoriously vain. He tries to disguise this behind a welter of self-deprecating remarks, but as one critic pointed out, self-deprecation is a peculiarly rarefied form of self-regard. On one occasion, just before a new series of Saturday Night Clive, he forced his entire production staff to assemble in his office while he "auditioned" different ties from a short-list of six.

At times, the wise-cracking man of the people does not see eye-to-eye with the cultivated man of letters. In his days as a critic he took Melvyn Bragg to task for including an interview with Paul McCartney on The South Bank Show. "A naked appeal for a wide audience," he sniffed. Yet when he's defending his own programmes he's bullishly populist: "If I can point to the ratings of a TV show then I don't have to give a shit what the critics have to say." On The Observer he scoffed at Jane Fonda for wanting to be taken seriously as a political agitator. "If ever I find myself sharing a belief with her, I re-examine it immediately," he said. But when he interviewed her for the BBC he came over as a fawning admirer.

When questioned about these two personnas, he denies there is any contradiction. "If you read my television criticism again you'll see it's full of praise for a lot of television entertainers," he says. "I was a big Morecombe and Wise fan, for instance, always." He is careful to distinguish between "quality" mass market television and "the lowest common denominator" and maintains there is a world of difference between someone like him and Terry Wogan. "What really matters to me is mass communication," he says. "If that goes everything goes. Trying to work for a large audience is the most valuable thing there is. I do not regard myself as slumming. I'm doing the hardest thing there is."

Clearly, whatever Clive James's shortcomings, he is an extremely successful entertainer. But now that he has found his niche on BBC1 isn't it about time he abandoned his ambitions as a man of letters? Clive James's talent is for great one-liners, not great literature. Few could improve on his description of Arnold Schwarzenegger as "a condom stuffed with walnuts". But when he strays into the realm of fiction he seems to lose his way.

This is apparent from his attempts at fictionalized autobiography. The clueless, eager-to-please Australian let loose in the Swinging Sixties is his favourite gag. He parades this figure before us with a paternal affection---we're supposed to find his unceasing efforts to get his end away as touching and funny as he does. But he never achieves the pathos he's aiming for. The person before us is too knowing and sophisticated to have ever been this oafish caricature. He's groping for a flip melancholy, a lyrical pop lament. But there's something phony about these confessions---the more he reveals the more he seems to conceal.

The striking thing about Clive James is how at odds his self-image is from the image his fans have of him. He sees himself as a communicator, someone capable of articulating the issues of the day in a way the public can understand. Yet what people like about him is his irreverent disregard for precisely this kind of highminded BBC paternalism. "The laugh of recognition is the one I seek," he says. "It comes from values communally shared." But the laughs he gets at the expense of America and Japan depend on national stereotypes which border on racism. He presents himself as a responsible public figure, on the side of the angels. Yet virtually every programme he makes, from Clive James Meets the Calender Girls to Postcard From Rio, features bare-breasted sun-tanned women.

Clive James is in the odd position of being a gag-writer who wants to be a writer, a populist who rejects populism. His liberal education makes him loathe to admit he has become one of the lowbrow television personalities that he and his smart literary friends used to ridicule. But the only real difference between Clive James and Terry Wogan is that Terry Wogan would never claim that one of his deepest influences was George Orwell.

The Evening Standard, 1991

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