Clive & kick­ing

TV’s great­est critic Clive James was di­ag­nosed with leukaemia in 2010 but his ra­zor-sharp take on the small screen is undimmed, finds Alan Tay­lor

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Clive James Yale Uni­ver­sity Press £14.99 Re­view by Alan Tay­lor

IMAG­INE you’ve just re­ceived an email from the Grim Reaper telling you it’s time to get your af­fairs in or­der and to make your way to the de­par­ture lounge. How best to spend your last few, sen­tient hours? In 2010 Clive James was di­ag­nosed with leukaemia and in­formed that his days were num­bered. His in­stinc­tive re­sponse was to read and reread, and write. Ma­rooned in a book-lined flat he has been more pro­duc­tive of late than a hy­per­ac­tive ant.

He has com­pleted a trans­la­tion of Dante’s Divine Com­edy, a com­men­tary in verse on Proust, a rather won­der­ful col­lec­tion of po­etry and Last Read­ings, re­flec­tions on the writ­ers and books that have been his con­stant com­pan­ions through a life thirled to print.

Now 76, he is still with us and show­ing no signs that he is about to leap aboard a plane to nowhere. In Play All, sub-ti­tled A Bingewatcher’s Note­book, he turns his gaze on tele­vi­sion, of which he was the best critic I have come across. Be­tween 1972 and 1982, his col­umn in the Ob­server was a plum pud­ding re­plete with one-lin­ers that made one gasp at their au­dac­ity.

My favourite was his de­scrip­tion of the ice-skaters Torvill and Dean, dressed in gold cos­tumes, which James likened to two pack­ets of Ben­son and Hedges cig­a­rettes danc­ing in a fridge.

Since then tele­vi­sion has changed al­most be­yond recog­ni­tion, as has the man­ner in which we con­sume it. One such de­vel­op­ment is the box set which al­lows us to watch pro­grammes as and when we want.

Should we so choose we can spend whole days im­mersed in the likes of House of Cards and Band of Broth­ers, which some re­gard as a balm and others as a por­tent of civil­i­sa­tion’s im­mi­nent demise.

Im­mo­bilised by ill­ness, James is ra­pa­cious in his view­ing and makes no ex­cuses for it. “You might ask,” he writes, “how a man who spent his days with the ma­jor po­ems of Brown­ing could spend his evenings with the mi­nor movies of Chow Yun-fat, but I could re­ply only that it was a du­plex need buried deep in my neu­ral net­work.”

Un­der con­sid­er­a­tion here are such pro­grammes as Game of Thrones, The Wire, The So­pra­nos, Mad Men and Bat­tlestar Galac­tica, sev­eral of which I con­fess I have also watched though not, it would seem, as care­fully and as con­stantly as James.

Why do we al­low such shows to swal­low up so many of our wak­ing hours? James’s rea­son­ing, his ex­cuse, is sim­ple: they’re grip­ping.“With­out that, com­pli­ca­tion and so­phis­ti­ca­tion count for noth­ing, or else you’d ac­tu­ally be en­joy­ing the later nov­els of Henry James.”

The best pro­grammes, he as­serts, are like the best nov­els, in­tel­li­gent, con­vinc­ing and en­gross­ing. More­over, they cre­ate worlds which feel real. Apro­pos The West Wing, he pon­ders why we find Pres­i­dent Bar­lett “so in­tensely hu­man”. His an­swer is that he has “an aching sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. He knows he is the best man for the job be­cause he is the best qual­i­fied for anal­y­sis and de­ci­sion; but he can’t be at ease in his role, be­cause he knows his­tory too well.”

While there is a ten­dency in some quar­ters to dero­gate tele­vi­sion in favour of other art forms, James is rightly im­pressed by it. His text is awash with ref­er­ences to films and nov­els, plays and po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

He up­braids Hol­ly­wood for its “ac­cursed” rule of cast­ing good-look­ing women “wher­ever pos­si­ble”. Hav­ing said that, he is hon­est enough to ad­mit that while he is “well past the age of mis­be­haviour” he can still “lose my heart to a pretty face”.

He prefers The Wire to Treme, which I do too, but I can­not agree that the

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