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One of the great writers of our times: Clive James. Photo/Getty Images

How Clive James made TV criticism respectable – and brilliant

No one and nothing was safe from the wit and wisdom of the Aussie writer and broadcaster.

Clive James. Who? When I picked up a paperback for $4.50 of Visions Before Midnight, a collection of his 70s television criticism for the Observer, it was a revelation. There were two more books in that series. They’ve sat to hand on the shelf in my study ever since, along with his essays, memoirs … Here was writing of such erudite, comical originality it couldn’t be read on public transport for fear of creating a nuisance.

Back then, the chief qualification for being a television critic seemed to be that you despised the medium and were prepared to sneer at it for 1000 words once a week. James gave permission to take the piss but also to pay television the respect of your full, delighted, mesmerised, maddened attention.

That one of the great writers of our times was a fellow square-eyed couch potato felt liberating. He was also Australian, one of a flock of antipodeans – Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and, for a while, John Clarke – who hit London armoured by their glittering flair and hungry for attention. James became a critic, poet, novelist, essayist, broadcaster … “A brilliant bunch of guys,” as New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett put it; a polymath in whom a yearning to be taken seriously was forever duking it out with a compulsion to amuse. On his postmodern television shows, he hosted the Spice Girls and alerted the world to the cultural significance of Willi the Hamster. He was a sort of grinning analogue Australian prototype of YouTube. Driven? “I was moving forward,” he once said, “at the high speed of a thrown shoe.”

Drama, sport, the special circle of hell that was light entertainment – whatever the vehicle, as a reviewer James recorded with ruthless glee the precise moment the wheels fell off. He viewed the often preposterous products of British and American television as if they were beaming in from outer space. In the case of one of his favourites, Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way – “The present writer once spilled a tray of ice cubes into his lap when he saw Barbara Woodhouse kissing a horse” – there is no other plausible explanation. “Barbara Woodhouse trains dogs,” he wrote, admiring Aussie drawl audible even on the page, “by breaking the spirit of the owner.”

He could also throw off something quite profound and with continued significance. “You will never catch Sir Oswald Mosley admitting to anti-Semitism,” he wrote in 1976. “All he does is embody it.”

A personal favourite: “Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world.” He had no fear of the anarchic manifestations of humanity that streamed into the living room. He had no fear, as viewers of his shows or readers of his besotted mash notes about Princess Diana discovered, of making a fanboy or a fool of himself.

When we spoke in 2007, he couldn’t help but mention the family he wasn’t supposed to talk about – his wife, Dante scholar Prue Shaw, and his daughters, one of whom, Claerwen James, paints lonely young girls and has spoken of a distant dad. Was he self-involved? “I have attention-deficiency syndrome when it comes to other people,” he said when we spoke. “I’m not kidding when I say I’m the idiot of the family.” Well, they attract all the attention, don’t they? “That’s exactly it. Out there in the street, running in front of cars and chasing dogs.” It must have been exhausting being him. For the rest of us, it was a blast.

When it came to his flawed yet somehow magnificent oeuvre, he had no regrets. “One way or another, it will all add up one day,” he said valiantly. If he could see the response to his death, even after the big build-up he gave it, he would know that it did.

This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.