Clive James… the world’s greatest critic
Clive James is too acerbic to be described as a national treasure. The cuttingly-funny television critic, presenter, essayist and poet, might be better described as a national treasurer: evaluating our country’s cultural worth, with a clear, unflinching eye. Here, we bring you an interview with this national treasurer from 2012, as interviewed by Jennifer Cox.
At the age of 73, James still displays a manifest enthusiasm for everything he does. He is a man exhibiting an infectious lust for life, despite recovering from a near fatal illness – what James refers to as his ‘brush with the old man with the scythe’ – a form of leukemia, diagnosed after kidney failure in 2010.
For some, illness serves as a wake-up call, but when it comes to James’ career, he seems to have been wide awake from the start. His output is prodigious: since arriving from his native Australia in 1962, he has produced five volumes of memoir, four of poetry, eight volumes of essays, innumerable works of journalism, forays into theatre and music. Then, of course, there’s the seminal work as a television critic: spending most of the 1970s as the Observer’s television reviewer, recently returning to the ‘crystal bucket’ as the Telegraph’s TV critic. And of course, he was a television star in his own right.
James returned to BBC Radio 4 in 2011, when he inherited the old Alistair Cooke Sunday morning slot, A Point of View: a series of light-hearted but pointed weekly essays, encompassing everything from South American elections to JK Rowling’s dustbins. James admits that he enjoys an audience: he pens his books with the idea of performing them at the forefront of his mind, and has completed acclaimed reading tours both here and overseas: “I love to hear laughter,” he admits. “There are two kinds of laughter: the very polite, very English kind which you get when you’re trying too hard to be funny, and the absolutely solid paroxysm, when you really get them. That’s a very heady wine!”
Although seemingly a natural performer, James does admit to suffering from pre-show nerves. “The thought of all those people buying tickets just to come and see me scares the hell out of me,” he acknowledges, despite having performed since his days as president of the Footlights, when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1960s. “But every performer goes through that. Pavarotti once gave me a long lecture on the perils of being a tenor. You have to hit that high C, because audiences know when you don’t: especially in Parma, which is apparently a death town for tenors. Pavarotti told me that he missed a high C there once, and the next day at the station the porter wouldn’t carry his luggage.”
“But I’ve learnt an awful lot from things going badly,” James reflects philosophically. “Also, failure is funny. No one wants to hear about success: I can’t pretend I’ve been a flop, but I have made mistakes. There was the time, when editor Karl Miller almost fired me as radio critic of The Listener magazine because I’d neglected to listen to any radio programmes.”
Such self-deprecating remarks are James’ stock in trade, but it is those barbs he aims at others which are perhaps the most memorable. James famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the film Pumping Iron, as resembling: ‘a brown condom stuffed with walnuts’; Barbara Cartland’s eyes as ‘looking like the corpses of two crows that had flown into a chalk cliff’ and Leonid Brezhnev’s memoir: ‘So dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it.’
But for all James’ smart put-downs – delivered with that famous Aussie drawl, from the corner of his genial buddha gurn – and notwithstanding the years when he migrated from reviewing television programmes to hosting them, throughout his career he has been steadily producing a body of serious intellectual work. In 2007, he wrote the best-selling, globally acclaimed Cultural Amnesia: a 900- page cultural history of the 20th century. A sort of A-to-Z of the last century’s great thinkers, philosophers and writers, intertwined with wry anecdotes and observations about everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tony Blair. James explained at the time that: ‘Civilisation continues through the humane examination of its history … If we can’t remember it all, we should at least have some idea of what we have forgotten.’
Not bad coming from a suburbanAustralia lad, who alleges when he first went to Sydney University he was so out of his depth, that: “What kind of car, I wondered, was a Ford Madox Ford? What sort of conflict was an Evelyn War?”
Though of course, this has to be taken with a large pinch of salt: James himself notes in one of his memoirs that early tests revealed him to have an IQ of 140, and he would later teach himself eight languages, including Russian and Japanese, so he could read classics in the original. So less Outback Wilde, more witty, well-read, polymath; James has been likened to the great, erudite entertainer Peter Ustinov (who James greatly admired – on Ustinov’s death, James paid tribute saying: ‘I quite like talking myself, but when Peter was in the room there wasn’t much point, you just had to listen … it was like talking to Europe, talking to history’).
The work that is arguably closest to James’ own heart is his poetry. Describing it as ‘the centre of the whole business’, his poems have garnered both respect and acclaim: James’ collection, Angels Over Elsinore, was nominated for the 2009 Costa poetry award. The moving poem Son of a Soldier reveals much about James: a howl of pain for the father who survived a Japanese POW camp in the Second World War, only to die in an aircraft accident on the way home to his wife and five-year-old only child. James’s mother never re-married and the weight of that loss, and James’s own sense of guilt and powerlessness, is viscerally conveyed, as is James’s on-going struggle with the conventions of marriage (he has never really lived, except on weekends, with his wife and children).
James once complained that it seemed a successful career in television ‘ruled out any possible reputation as a serious writer’. And certainly, the Clive James many are familiar with is that of the 1980s and 90s when he hosted a series of hit television shows, such as Saturday Night Clive. Who can forget the Japanese game show contestants stuffing live tarantulas down their underpants, as the camp Cuban singer Margarita Pracatan competed for our incredulity with Sylvester Stallone’s mum (offering Britain possibly its first salutary lesson on the excesses of plastic surgery)?
In short, Clive James made really fantastic telly. His Postcard From… series in particular, tapped into his natural persona as historian, cultural arbitrator and droll tour guide rolled into one. He was perhaps the natural bridge from the Whicker’s World mode of TV travel to that of Michael Palin, whose own Around The World adventures were a full six years away. Clive James travelled from Biarritz to Beijing; Jerusalem to Las Vegas … all observed with his shrewd trademark wit. James’ voiceover from the opening of Postcards from Russia was one of his classics: Kicked by the 92,000 horses of its four Kuznetsov KN-8-4 turbofans, our half empty Ilyushin 11-62 scrambled out of Heathrow like a MiG-21. The cabin smelled of kerosene and was colder than a three-star freezer but not to worry, because in less time than it took to recover from the meal, we were on Soviet soil.
James bowed out of television in 2001, and I wondered if he ever regretted it?
“I could have stuck around for a bit longer,” he reflects, “but I thought I couldn’t do better than I did with the Postcards series, so I may as well leave it at that. Also, the excess of reality TV meant there was less room for my kind of thing: I could see the writing on the wall. In the end, everyone gets pushed off the balcony. The trick is to back away from the balcony, drift out without saying goodbye and catch a cab home.”
“I don’t begrudge the time I had on telly,” James concludes. “It made me well-known and gave me endless automatic publicity for anything serious I did. Articles asking ‘who does he think he is?’ are exactly the kind of publicity an author wants: the average book dies a death because no one knows who the author is.”
Which is precisely what makes Clive James so interesting: after a solid 50-year stream of articles, essays, radio and television programmes, you’d think we’d know exactly who he is. But whether wise-cracking raconteur or polymath poet, it seems we barely know James at all.
Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs, his autobiography and a Sunday Times Bestseller.