In a week that’s been all killer, no filler in terms of current affairs, the news that Clive James has been diagnosed with leukaemia was never likely to make a big noise, but for many of us hackabout writers with an unnecessary desire to be funny, it was a grave shock.
From a career with many and various creative peaks, James’ weekly TV reviews for the Observer from 1972 to 1982 will always hold a unique place for myself and many other. I didn’t know much about the off-screen a career of Clive James when I bought Clive James on Television, the big collected volume of all the little collected volumes, when it came out in 1990. I just knew he was funny on TV. A few pieces in and I was hooked. Six hours later, I’d finished the book, and had learned two things. One: Malcolm Muggeridge was a rum cove indeed. Two: this was how to write.
The collected columns start in September with the justly famous Munich Olympics commentator analysis, but James’s first column appeared on August 27th. It does have a slight air of bearings being taken, with more instances than usual of the sort of phrase-coining he’d become known for, and immediately started to cut down once he had. Hence Peregrine Worsthorne is “undisputed crown prince of the bizarro-loco school of creative journalism”, and there’s almost Brookerish reference to “chuckle-cruxes” and “giggle-nodes”, which would no doubt make James the editor wince. In general, though, he hits the ground running. Praising ecologist Henry Williamson’s documentary The Vanishing Hedgerows, he still takes the Radio Times to task for glossing over the presenter’s past political affiliations.
Next week’s column was the one that clicked with readers. Wood Lane’s Wonder Boys filleted the presentational style of Frank Bough, David Vine and pals, bringing fan mail by the sackful from fellow sufferers. James’s ability to look at the most commonplace television occurrences and find a barely-functioning madhouse within was something new to criticism. In a sense, it’s more akin to a humorous column in shape, the sort of thing Paul Jennings did with lost property departments, James did with lost continuity departments. But he was always careful to be never just a comic turn, and his criticisms are as solid as the lightly-built style will support. The following week, when things at Munich suddenly stopped being amusing, James gave David Coleman all due credit for dropping his regular mania to do “an impeccable job” at the memorial service.
James cherry-picked the best columns, and bits of columns, for republication, on the basis that the complete works would be far more TV criticism than anyone was prepared to lug home from WH Smith’s. It’s a representative sample, but some things are toned down, possibly through fear of repetition, in the editing process. Reading the books, you get the impression James can’t stand James Burke. The original columns tell a different story: he really hated him, on a weekly basis.
Initially he was a peripheral annoyance, The Burke Special being easy enough to switch off. The turning point came in 1975, and the transmission of a great big sprawling transatlantic co-production called The Inventing of America. Given two hours in which to itemise two centuries of America’s technological progress, Burke enlisted the venerable Raymond Burr to perform a sort of proto-Eureka! dramatised history lesson. Burr would get trussed up in period figgery as Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney and the like. Burke would then caper on in his never-changing off-white safari suit and give us the skinny on the relevant invention. There were jokes, songs, dance routines, and half-arsed parodies of other TV genres. Everything was thrown at it in an attempt to explain what could have been said “in a few well-chosen words, if anybody involved had been capable of doing the choosing”. James bravely faced down the giant, deconstructing the show far more efficiently than any semiologist, right down to the component parts of the Burke Smirk.
British television acquired much of its modern shape in the 1970s. After being on little more than nodding terms for decades, light entertainment and documentary were pushed into a shotgun wedding. Sober lectures were no longer enough. Visual aids attained the status of sets, and scientists the status of celebrities. It was the heyday of the telegenic eccentric, from Magnus Pyke to David Bellamy. Sat in front of three channels, James was able to disentangle the various strands of loopy innovation as they lined up in the schedules, an itinerary of insanity, with every tiny observation firmly in the service of the bigger picture. His observations were so pertinent they’re still being made by critics today, albeit with slightly woollier phrasing.
TV criticism has a pretty small hall of fame, which is probably appropriate to its position in the scheme of things. After James the other big name from the Golden Age is Nancy Banks-Smith, who combines the most absurdly likeable personality in the business with the handy advantage of having seen everything ever shown on telly in her long career. For me, though her opinions are usually reliable, a little of her signature trick of putting the boot into a programme from behind a smokescreen of dotty innocence goes a long way. Dennis Potter for the Daily Herald worked miracles within a 200-word tabloid limit, but purple passages still managed to creep in. The bulk of good criticism was delivered, unspectacularly but perceptively, by folk like Richard Last, Philip Purser and Peter Fiddick, but I doubt a collection of their work, good as it is, would be as readable as James at forty years’ remove.
As for today’s critics – well, let’s not spoilt the mood, eh? His idea of the perfect TV critic as an “intelligent layman” is fully realised in his columns, where he makes no claims to inside knowledge of the medium (even though when he began he’d just finished work on inglorious sub-sub-TW3 satire Up Sunday) but makes sure he’s informed on the aspect of life the programmes are about. Broadsheet critics would alter cunningly subvert this method by affecting to know everything about telly while knowing nothing about real life. Today’s breed go even further, swamping both in an ignorance of awesome scope and ferocity. With more journalism being written about TV now than ever before, but good examples more difficult to find, not less, there’s a lot to be said for the old model. Best of luck, Clive.