This blog is about celebrating, and occasionally eviscerating the world of cinema and television; it’s not the place for obituary notices. But for Clive James, the clown prince of critics, it’s worth making an exception. As a television critic, he was peerless, a genuine wit who watched the medium because he loved it.
In those days, critics didn’t wrestle access from PR companies, then write a review in the hope of a pull quote for a poster. James wrote what he saw, and then what happened after he switched channels because the first show bored him. He wrote about sporting events like Eurovision or Wimbledon or the endless movable feasts that were David Coleman, ITV telethons or disco competitions or even Ski Sunday. He wrote about the continuity announcements, on drab current affairs like Nationwide; one festive column saw him switching between BBC films Where Eagles Dare and The Sound of Music, with the triumphant von Trapp family eventually invading Germany and accepting the surrender of General von Paulus.
James has a way with prose which captured the best possible kind of commentary, adding an idiosyncratic series of observations on whatever he reviewed. He was an intellectual who enjoyed mass entertainment. He would write passionately on Shakespeare or Jack Rosenthal, decry what he perceived as laziness in the work of Pinter and Lindsay Anderson, yet get sucked into the schlock of The Poseidon Adventure or Martin Sheen’s performance as a ‘drug-addicted, plague-carrying gigolo’ in The Cassandra Crossing. He was sensitive to the gift for individual detail he saw in the work of Victoria Wood, but also find the space for a boyish snigger at the eroticism he happened upon in the innuendos of hapless BBC sports commentators. ‘He’s pulling the big one out now,’ was a well-caught slip describing the athlete Brendan Foster.
And James did pull the big one out. Time and again, he captured moments in prose that endure. There was terse disapproval on observing Princess Anne at a rugby match, visibly withering away during the national anthem and offering up ‘an uninterrupted stream of chat.’ He aptly described the It’s A Knockout judge Eddie Waring’s rocking on-camera movements as ‘cogitations’, and accused the Germans of preparing for some ludicrous slippery-pole game ‘since the end of World War Two’. He fearlessly pilloried Rupert Murdoch, specifically because he percieved him to be a snob about he arts. He noted a worthy tv drama that finished with a sudden scream, then wearily confessed ‘It was mine.’ He banqueted on drama, from The Borgias to Dallas, making pithy observations about Sue Ellen’s mouth or the Poisoned Dwarf that made the tiresome programmes more fun to watch. He railed at variety shows, and domestic tv figures like Max Bygraves or Dick Emery, but was more than happy to launch into withering descriptions of the on-stage indulgences of big international stars like Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra.
James went on to interview Sinatra as part of his tv work; like Terry Wogan, his wit seemed to be gradually blunted by his proximity to his subjects, and absorbed into his understandable desire to be part of the continuing cultural soap-opera he wrote about. He was a tv natural, with a sing-song delivery and a genuine desire to amuse; the clip below comes from his Clive James At the Movies single show for ITV, in which he examined risible clips from old movies; his joy is evident, and the sound of his laughter will be missed.
(Some of the quotes above may be inaccurate, I didn’t check them, they are as I remember then forty years after reading them.)