It was revealed in the British press last Thursday that Australia’s own Clive James is dying of cancer. The story, which first appeared in the Daily Mirror, was based on a transcript of an interview James had given to BBC Radio 4’s Meeting Myself Coming Back (which wasn’t due to air until Saturday evening, and is now on the BBC website). In the interview James said:
I’m getting near the end. I’m a man who is approaching his terminus.
In this context it sounded pretty serious. Thankfully it isn’t quite that bad. Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph on Saturday, James said:
The newspaper [the Daily Mirror] had got hold of a transcript of the instalment devoted to me of the BBC radio show Meeting Myself Coming Back (to be transmitted tonight) and selected a few dozen quotes so that I seemed to be practically expiring in the arms of the journalist assigned to register my dying breath.
The process of lifting the transcript was made easier by the Beeb’s weird decision to dress it up as a news story and hand it to its website several days before the scheduled transmission.
I’m not objecting, because I haven’t got time. In the interview I am represented as saying that I am losing my battle with leukaemia. Well, of course I am. Eventually I must. But the main thrust of the broadcast is, I can assure you, quite merry.
Indeed it is – take a listen if you’ve time – and it’s good to hear that James will be with us for a little while longer, because at the risk of this turning in to an obituary (as much of the coverage in the press and on social media last week kinda did) Clive James’ death would be a significant loss to Australian comedy.
Clive James isn’t strictly a comedian of course, he’s probably best described as a journalist, broadcaster and writer (and not necessarily in that order), but he has a background in comedy and has always produced erudite and witty work.
After spending his undergraduate years at Sydney University in the early 60s, Clive James sailed off to see world. Eventually he ended up as a postgraduate student at Cambridge, where he joined the university’s revue society the Footlights Club (whose alumni includes half of Monty Python, all of The Goodies, Peter Cook, Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Mitchell & Webb, Miriam Margoyles, Sasha Baron Cohen and many others). In 1966 James appeared in and wrote some of a Footlights revue with Eric Idle and fellow ex-pat Germaine Greer; in 1967 he was Footlights Club President as well as a writer and performer.
After Cambridge James went to London and became a journalist and sometime comedy writer. He enjoyed most success a journalist, notably as TV critic of The Observer, a post he held for a decade. If you like good writing about television, track down copies of Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box, which contain his best columns.
In the early 80s Clive James stopped writing about television because he was getting far too much work on it. His shows, made for the BBC and ITV (he switched networks several times), included the Postcards series, where he travelled to various cities and gave his commentary, a number of interview programmes (including The Late Clive James – not another pre-emptive obituary, it was a late night show), various programmes about television (Clive James on Television, Saturday Night Clive, The Clive James Show), Fame in the 20th Century – a decade by decade show looking at the electronic media and celebrity, and several New Year’s Eve specials. If you were watching the ABC regularly in the 90s it was almost impossible to avoid his trademark witticisms and droll delivery (if you weren’t, Madman released a best of DVD, The Clive James Collection, last year).
James’ other works includes essays, novels, stage tours, poetry, some pioneering online TV efforts, and five volumes of autobiography. If you like good comic writing track down the latter; the first two volumes, Unreliable Memoirs and Falling Towards England, cover his early life in Australia, the third, May Week Was in June, his early life in the UK, the fourth, North Face of Soho, his early journalistic career, and the fifth, The Blaze of Obscurity, his famous television work. For those old enough to remember the Bicentenary, James’ account of Australia Live, of which he was one of the hosts, is fascinating.
It’s also a devastatingly frank critique of the Nine Network’s approach to television, in which he argues that Australia Live focused too heavily on heart-warming tales and celebrity success stories, forsaking cultural and scientific achievements. This is typical of Clive James; throughout his career he’s referenced history, art, literature and many other “high” disciplines in his writings, even his writings on commercial television and pop culture. His work is insightful and critical, but also funny – he once described Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like “a condom stuffed with walnuts”. He’s not strictly a comedian, but he’s inspired many of them (Charlie Pickering was among those paying tribute to him last week), and like his fellow ex-patriot Barry Humphries he was one of the first Australians to prove that you can be funny AND intelligent.
May Clive James live as long as he can, uninterrupted by the Nine Network’s sensationalist approach to television, but munching on as many Cherry Ripes as he can get hold of. Anyone got his address? We feel like sending him a box.