TV reviewers the world over owe debt to Clive James

Australian critic created template which has allowed writers freedom to shine ever since

Australian writer Clive James: The TV reviews he wrote for the Observer newspaper from 1972 to 1982  left a lasting impression. File photograph: Alan Porritt/EPA

Australian writer Clive James: The TV reviews he wrote for the Observer newspaper from 1972 to 1982 left a lasting impression. File photograph: Alan Porritt/EPA

 

Clive James, who died this week, was a man of many impressive parts, poet, essayist, literary critic, broadcaster, songwriter and blogger among them. But for me, it was the TV reviews he wrote for the Observer newspaper from 1972 to 1982 that left the most vivid and lasting impression. That’s partly because James essentially invented the newspaper TV review as a particular sort of place where writers could flex their muscles and show off in a way that might have been frowned on elsewhere. But it was mostly because he was so damned brilliant at the job that everyone who followed remains in his shadow.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him around the time of the publication of North Face of Soho, the fourth instalment of his Unreliable Memoirs, which fortuitously covered his years at the Observer. As an interviewee he was great value, riffing on the glory days of Fleet Street and the more recent hollowing out of the book publishing business.

We should be grateful for his demolition of the previously rigid distinctions between “high” and “low” culture

Most TV reviewing still sticks firmly to the template established by James, even though television itself has changed radically since the 1970s. Received wisdom has it that those changes have generally been for the worse; nostalgia for a supposed Golden Age of television is particularly acute in the UK, although you’ll occasionally see outbreaks of it here too on occasions such as the recent death of Gay Byrne.

I’ve never been so sure about that. The myth of a Golden Age is sustained in part by the fact that we rarely see many of the programmes of the era in full. Were they really all they were cracked up to be? The historian Tom Holland recently described how let down he felt when he finally got to see the BBC’s “classic” adaptation of I, Claudius, with its rickety sets, hammy acting and rudimentary camera work.

When we talked in 2006, though, James had no doubt about the quality of 1970s British TV. “Anything they kept, I watch,” he told me. “I was a big fan of the over-qualified presenters. These guys had been through the war, they had a very complex and subtle line on politics, they were great at presenting a full historical view and making it entertaining. Whenever you see their stuff you revel in how good it is.”

For good or ill, that world is gone. The idea of television as an authoritative voice has been diminished by industry fragmentation, generational change and cultural shifts (some of them for the better). But the newspaper TV review itself soldiers on regardless as a home for some of the best writers. That may be because television is an attractively broad canvas on which a prose stylist can make a mark. Whether the writer tends towards the acerbic or the whimsical, TV offers opportunities to comment on most aspects of life, because most aspects of life are on TV.

Eye-catching juxtapositions

Wry humour and a well-turned phrase still go a long way in a television review, for which we can thank James. We should also be grateful for his demolition of the previously rigid distinctions between “high” and “low” culture. As his friend Robert McCrum noted this week, he had no problem putting Rambo and Rimbaud in the same sentence. Those eye-catching juxtapositions are a feature of the form to this day.

But what’s the purpose of a weekly TV column in the age of streaming? One of the peculiarities of TV reviewing up until relatively recently was that it offered a critique of a programme which the reader had either already seen or was unlikely to ever see. Culture criticism in mainstream media has always hovered between the consumer guide (go/don’t go to this show), the primer (read this review and you’ll know enough about the subject to get by) and the standalone entertainment (don’t worry about the subject, this review is worth reading in its own right). As a genre, the TV review always tended towards the last of these, a place where star writers can show their starriness on a subject which transcends the usual niches and appeals to everyone.

That’s why TV reviewers were (and occasionally still are) prominently promoted by their newspapers and often feature in the nomination lists for annual journalism awards. There is, though, a sense these days that, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, even if they’re still big, the pictures have got smaller.

It’s unlikely Clive James would have been particularly perturbed by this. He wasn’t just sanguine about change; he spent his life tangling enthusiastically with it, including during the extended goodbye that followed a diagnosis of leukaemia in 2010, a period that included not just a number of moving poems on the meaning of mortality but a determination to hang on for the final season of Game of Thrones.

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