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Sunday 15 December 2019

Obituary: Clive James

Australian man of letters who invented modern TV criticism and as a natural performe, became a star himself

Unmistakeable voice: Clive James
Unmistakeable voice: Clive James

Clive James, who has died aged 80, was an old-fashioned man of letters - a critic, essayist, poet and novelist - who thanks to his wit and affability became an improbable star of television.

He first made his name in the 1970s as TV critic of The Observer, with a much imitated column that combined a self-consciously literary style with spectacular personal rudeness. He described Arnold Schwarzenegger as resembling "a large brown condom filled with walnuts", Frank Sinatra's hair transplant as looking like "a gorilla's armpit", and the tennis player Andrea Jaeger, who was then aged 15 and wore braces on her teeth, as having "a smile like a car crash".

Though he mocked the medium extravagantly, James relished appearing on it, and was a natural performer. To begin with he effectively transferred his column to the screen, in Clive James on Television, on which he offered droll highbrow commentary on lowbrow television footage, particularly of Japanese game shows.

Exploiting to comic effect his own marked lack of physical glamour - it was said of him that he looked like a bank robber who had forgotten to remove the stocking from his head, and as a burly Australian he was inevitably compared to Abel Magwitch - he branched out into documentaries about his encounters with beautiful women: The Clive James Paris Fashion Show; Clive James and the Calendar Girls; The Clive James Great American Beauty Pageant; Clive James Meets the Supermodels.

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Some of these he later regretted, writing of Clive James at the Playboy Mansion (1987): "In less time than it takes for a man to make a fool of himself I was in the hot tub with three of the magazine's centrefold lovelies... But as some Greek philosopher once said, all images are binding images, and from then on I was the guy who jumped into the jacuzzi with the crumpet."

Thus established, James went on to present such late-night chat shows as The Late Clive James, The Late Show with Clive James, Saturday Night Clive and Sunday Night Clive, on which he combined the impression of irreverence with a degree of obsequiousness, thereby doubly flattering his guests. "I don't like the celebrity culture. I'm against it," he said. "On the other hand, I'm for it when it works for me."

The mixture of knowing, satirical wisecracks and more traditional prime-time fare - high-kicking women in feathered headgear featured in one show - proved hugely popular with audiences. His New Year's Eve review of the year for the BBC became a fixture in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A similar tone was apparent in his various verse satires - The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media (1975); Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage through the London Literary World (1976); and Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne (1981). Felicity Fark and Peregrine Prykke were ostensibly lampoons, with famous names parodied ("Des Coxcomb" for Des O'Connor, "Tina Braun" for Tina Brown), but were affectionate, too.

Charles Charming's Challenges was written in anticipation of the Prince of Wales's marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. James was not invited to the wedding, but he did become an informal adviser to the Prince of Wales and a confidant of the Princess. Diana used to watch his chat shows being recorded, and in an essay in The New Yorker published two weeks after her death, James remembered how she had once told him, giggling: "I think it's terrible what you do to those Japanese people. You are terrible." By his own account, he loved her "to distraction", and felt as if he had been "an obscure, besotted walk-on mesmerised by the trajectory of a burning angel".

James himself was the target of sustained mockery, particularly during his years on prime-time television, from the critics and from Private Eye, which nicknamed him "Jaws". In an attempt to pre-empt it, he cast himself in The Remake, his second novel, as "the Widmerpool from Woolloomooloo... a sad sort of guy. The last freelance literary journalist... Writes poetry that sounds the way reproduction furniture looks."

James fell seriously ill in 2010 - first with emphysema (he had been a heavy smoker) and then, in 2012, with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia - and in the subsequent years there were signs that he was taking stock. His public mood became increasingly introspective. He announced in 2012 that he was "a man who is approaching his terminus" (although the end turned out to be farther away than he had thought) and he concentrated on writing verse even while he lay in hospital beds.

Clive Vivian Leopold James was born in Sydney on October 7, 1939. His father was taken prisoner as an Australian serviceman during the fall of Singapore in 1942. Liberated three years later, he died in an air crash on his way home - a crushing blow to the young Clive, and to his mother, who suffered a nervous breakdown.

Clive was educated at Sydney Technical High School and at Sydney University, where he was literary editor of Honi Soit magazine.

In 1961, after a year as assistant editor on the magazine page of the Sydney Morning Herald, he sailed to London, where for three years he lived a quasi-bohemian existence before going up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read English. Grinning, bearded and already balding, he became a familiar figure at the university, particularly in the Footlights, of which he was president.

He met his compatriot Germaine Greer, and his future wife, Prue Shaw. He dabbled in drugs ("only pot"), and began writing lyrics for Pete Atkin, with whom he recorded six albums of jazz-folk music, including A King at Nightfall, Secret Drinker and The Master of the Revels.

After Cambridge he became a book reviewer in London. "His prominence in extra-curricular activities having attracted the attention of the London literary editors," as he put it in the biographical note on his website, "the byline 'Clive James' was soon appearing in The Listener, New Statesman, The Review and several other periodicals, all of them keen to tap into the erudite verve which had been showing up so unexpectedly in Varsity and the Cambridge Review."

In 1972 James was appointed television critic of The Observer, where he remained for 10 years and attracted a devoted readership. The TV review had until then been a negligible form, but James packed it with all the wit and erudition at his disposal, and many regard those columns as his best work. They were collected in Visions Before Midnight (1977), The Crystal Bucket (1981) and Glued to the Box (1982).

They also translated him into that medium. In addition to his documentaries and chat shows, from 1989 he made Postcards, a well-regarded series of travel programmes.

In 1980, James published Unreliable Memoirs, the first volume of his autobiography. A knockabout and salty account of his Australian childhood, it was true to its title, but thoroughly entertaining, and it sold well. It was followed by Falling Towards England (1985); May Week Was in June (1990); Always Unreliable (2001); North Face of Soho (2006); and The Blaze of Obscurity (2009). His first novel, Brilliant Creatures (1983), was a roman-a-clef about literary London, as was his second, The Remake (1987).

James's own opinion of his fiction, as of his other achievements, oscillated between vanity and humility, depending on the circumstances. He did not write for posterity, he explained: "Writers go mad when they try to do that. One of the things that keeps me sane is I want it now. I want to become immortal now, and then die." He told the critic Bryan Appleyard that he was content to be categorised as "an entertainer... there are worse things to be called".

His three earlier volumes of verse, Fan-Mail (1977), Poem of the Year (1983) and Other Passports (1986), were collected in The Book of My Enemy in 2003. Cultural Amnesia (2007) was a diverse collection of biographical essays.

Outside literature and television, James's interests included Formula One motor racing, American football, ice-skating and the tango. His abiding passion, though, was for attractive young women, which was evident at parties, in his television programmes, and in his novels and verse.

In Brilliant Creatures, for example, his alter ego Lancelot Windhover is married to a beautiful academic but manages to seduce Sally Draycott, TV's golden girl and also to enjoy the favours of the pert young Samantha Copperglaze, "to prove a girl like her could be a moderately famous man's companion".

In his poem Budge Up an ageing lecher assists a nymph with her toilette: "She anoints herself with liberal Oil of Ulay / It looks like fun / Her curved fingers leave a few streaks not rubbed in / He says: here, let me help. The night is young but not as young as she is / And he is older than the hills."

James's last years saw intense bursts of productivity when he was not blocked by illness. More poems appeared in Nefertiti in the Flak Tower; his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy into rhyming quatrains was published; and a collection of essays, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.

Sentenced to Life, published in 2015, was a valedictory collection of poems, mostly taking in themes of sadness, remorse and decline.

The volume was dedicated to his wife, Prue, as was the translation of Dante, though a few years earlier an Australian TV channel exposed James's eight-year affair with Leanne Edelsten, a former model; he was estranged from his family for a period and, finally, reconciled.

For three years from 2011 James wrote a weekly television column for The Daily Telegraph. At 74 he reflected that "at this age and in this condition - when I'm short of breath and perhaps not long for this world - my ambition now is to live until box four of Game of Thrones", adding that his love of the series broke his lifelong rule "to have nothing to do with any art form which has dragons in it".

In the end he had time to binge-watch all eight seasons, and many more box sets besides, rating The Sopranos the greatest.

Clive James acknowledged that he was likely to be remembered for his television work rather than his writing. "Television paid for the groceries," he said. "As a poet I would have starved."

He was appointed to the Order of Australia in 1992, CBE in 2012, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010.

He married Prudence Shaw, who taught Italian at Cambridge and London; they had two daughters.

© Telegraph

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