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Talking in the Library
Here's the audio from Clive's televised interview series Talking in the Library. Variable quality? Where's the video? Explanations and excuses? See links at the foot of this page.
Peter Porter is the leading Australian expatriate poet of his generation. During fifty years in London, he has built an unassailable reputation as a poet, critic and broadcaster who combines erudition with a brilliant colloquial manner. One of his gifts is to talk the way he writes: always learned, yet always entertaining, his conversation has had a profound influence on younger writers, not just because of his enthusiasm about literature but because of his generous appreciation of music and the plastic arts.
Olly & Suzi
Collaborative British artists Olly & Suzi work with photographer Greg Williams in remote polar, desert, jungle and ocean environments. They track, paint and — to use their word — interact with predators and their prey. Some of the interacting can look perilous if the creature is a Great White shark or a charging rhinoceros. The idea is that the animal will leave an impression on the painting, if not on the painters. In my library, the intrepid duo faces one of the less formidable primates. (See also Olly & Suzi’s section in the Gallery, for images of their work, links to their website and a BBC documentary.)
Bruce Beresford is the Australian film director who transformed the film industry in his own country with the Barry Mackenzie films, consolidating the breakthrough with The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant and Don’s Party. He went on to become one of the most adventurous international directors. No matter how big the financial hit — Driving Miss Daisy or Double Jeopardy — he will always follow it with something risky, even suicidal. He is also a funny talker, who has been amusing me since we were students together more than forty years ago.
Deborah Bull is currently moving on from her prominent role as a prima ballerina of the Royal ballet to take her destined place as a spokesperson and impresario for the dancing arts. The new Covent Garden studio theatres to whose command she has just been appointed were largely her creation in the first place. In addition, she heads London’s outstanding company for modern dance, and is the author of one of the very best books about her art, Dancing Away. She is also a natural television performer who doesn’t even have to write it first: she can just say it.
Ruby Wax is not only one of the funniest women in the world, she is a maker of documentary films for television who ranks in originality with the great founders of the genre. On location, she can create a situation like nobody else, and then use her formidable skills as a director to make sure that it is captured on film. It isn’t enough to coax Imelda Marcos into revealing the secrets of her walk-in wardrobe, you have to get the lights and camera in there too. You have to be Ruby Wax.
Martin Amis has achieved such celebrity as a stylish icon of his age-group that the coverage in the media threatens to cloud the picture of his clean-edged originality as a master of the English sentence, of which he has reinvented every part while further focussing its melody and rhythm. Celebrated among his friends as one of the great talkers at the lunch table, he has rarely enjoyed talking on television, which he finds intolerably artificial. But when he talks in my library, with a drink and a roll-up to hand, it’s a different matter.
Ian McEwan runs at the front of the grid with a generation of British novelists who are always mentioned together, and his international reputation sometimes looks like outstripping even theirs.Amsterdam actually won him the Booker prize but he has been short-listed three times and as far as countless readers are concerned he might as well be just given the trophy to take home. Since I first met him, however, I have been able to take his talent for granted without ever quite getting to the heart of his personal mystery, because he doesn’t really fit in anywhere except at the top. Instead of the usual Oxbridge route through the educational system, he took the side track that led through the University of East Anglia and a school of creative writing that left the traditional Eng. lit. instruction manual looking a bit clapped out, like a used Empire.
Cate Blanchett is the dazzling Australian stage and screen star who has gone all the way to fairyland as the princess in Lord of the Rings. In the title role of Elizabeth she was a queen, instantly establishing herself as a regal presence who speaks English as if she had helped to invent it. She makes a speciality of the haughty beauty that can strike men dumb. Relaxing in the library of a dumb admirer, she proves wonderfully down to earth.
Alan Jenkins is one of the outstanding poets of his generation. Starting from a non-Establishment background, he has rapidly become, at an early age, an Establishment figure as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement. Knowing the field from two opposed angles, as a poet and as the editor who chooses which other poets will be printed in a key journal, he is well qualified to discuss an unusual topic: poetry as a career.
Piers Paul Read
Piers Paul Read leapt to fame as the author of Alive, a book about plane-crash victims in the Andes who ate their dead. The book was so successful that it would have overshadowed the subsequent career of a less accomplished writer, but his string of novels has established him as an acute analyst of European social structures convulsively altering in the course of modern history. Informing all his work is his Catholic faith, which proves to be the central topic of a unique conversation.
P.J. O’Rourke has been happily disagreeing with Clive James’s wishy-washy liberalism for years. This meeting between the Kid from Kogarah and the Republican Party Reptile was scheduled well before the events of September 11th 2001, but soon afterwards P.J. flew the Atlantic to keep the date, and even in sombre circumstances the wit shines through the seriousness, just as the seriousness has always shone through the wit.
Simon Callow is an eloquent, ebullient combination of screen star, stage actor and writer. In Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love he showed how a character role could dominate the big screen. In the theatre, his achievements include one-man shows (notably his portrait of Dickens) in which he dominates the stage all on his own. His biographical writings on Orson Welles and Charles Laughton are worthy of their protean subjects. Protean himself, in this interview he unveils yet another of his careers, as a film director.
Julian Barnes became world famous as the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, and has gone on to consolidate his reputation as one of the most subtle writers of his time, both as a novelist and an essayist. Although a star guest on French television, the bilingual author is seldom to be seen on small screens in Britain, because the atmosphere of a standard studio is one he would rather avoid. Talking in the library, he shows us what we have been missing, in a conversation that will fascinate his admirers all over the world.
Jonathan Miller started something with Beyond the Fringe but was content to let the next generation try to finish it, although few of them had his gift for penetratingly intelligent humour. He went on to host arts televison programmes and become the most sought-after director of opera in the world. But it was increasingly evident from his several big television series on science that his deeper interests lay in the brain itself, the source of all creativity. Talking in the library, Miller attempts to redirect the attention of an arts-bound plodder towards the true centre of the action. Typically, Miller is so lyrical about the adventure of science that his explanations bring us back to art by another route.
Terry Gilliam went on from Monty Python to become one of the most original film directors Hollywood has known: sometimes too original for the comfort of the studio bosses. With a piece of paper and a pencil he can create a personal world for four pence. On film he needs millions of dollars, but he spends it to rare effect. Those who believe, as I do, that Brazil is a political film ranking with the achievements of Costa-Gavras and Gillo Pontecorvo, will welcome the rare opportunity to see and hear Gilliam expressing himself outside the usual restrictions of the talk show. His torrential inventiveness is as evident as his boundless humour.
Jung Chang ranks with Alexander Solzhenitsyn as the author of a great book that dispelled the last illusions about a great tyranny. Wild Swans matches The Gulag Archipelago for its power and horror, with the difference that the personality of its narrator seems so frail. But the frailty is an illusion. She is a tough-minded woman, as the ghost of Mao Zedong is about to find out, because after nine years she is just finishing his biography. In this programme, she looks back on her nightmarish childhood and forward to a transformed China.
Howard Jacobson is one of the most fearless commentators of our time. Shocking and subversively funny, he has a permanently fresh knack for breaking taboos like stale biscuits. In his novels and newspaper columns he is famous for his provocative eloquence, but the surprise is that he talks that way in real life, with an unmatched capacity to put a complex point of view in a string of elegantly formed declarative sentences. Talking in the library, he faces the hard questions about what it means to be Jewish in a purportedly multicultural Britain and in a world put out of joint by the turmoil in the Middle East.
Ahdaf Soueif has written two of the most important novels to have come out of Egypt in recent times: The Map of Love and In the Eye of the Sun. Her first concern is the position of Egypt in relation to Britain, the old colonialist power. She has lived the relationship in her own person, as an exile and as a representative of women’s liberation in the Islamic world. Her further concern is with the position of Islam in a world context. Clive James does his best to convince us that her charm and beauty are irrelevant to the argument.
Sir Jeremy Isaacs
Sir Jeremy Isaacs rapidly established himself as the most creative television executive of our time when he green-lighted such revolutionary programmes as Rock Follies and The Naked Civil Servant. He personally launched Channel 4 and shaped its early course. His World at War series set the standards for a genre. As director of the Royal Opera House he got into a war of his own, which he characteristically allowed the television cameras to observe. He is possibly the last example of a type that changed Britain: the cultural grandee. Talking in the library, Isaacs effortlessly proves that charm and enthusiasm have always been two of his most potent weapons.
Stephen Bayley is the British design guru who takes his vision of industrial creativity into the realm of aesthetics. He isn’t automatically convinced by the next twist of fashion in interior decorating and if he doesn’t like some overpriced maniac’s latest brainwave in moulded plastic furniture he may try to attack it with a road drill. On the other hand nobody is more susceptible to the functional beauty of aircraft and automobiles, a passion I share with him, although he has a sympathy with Detroit-style stylistic extravagance that can sometimes worry me almost as much as my random selection of socks must worry him. I already found him admirable before he walked off the job of filling Britain’s ill-fated Millennium Dome, on the grounds that somebody should have figured out what the thing was for before it was put up. He has the knack of getting in ahead of everybody with values that turn out to be permanent. The only problem is to slow him down.
Richard E. Grant
Richard E. Grant became everybody’s favourite British upmarket eccentric actor as the tall one in Withnail and I. Even Hollywood could tell he was from Britain. He was in fact from Swaziland, but that made him more Empire than anybody. Secretly powering his gift for droll comedy was a deep sense of personal unease stemming from his childhood. The story began to surface in his first book of diaries — With Nails — and in his novel about Hollywood By Design. Both books were disturbingly well written if you happened to be a writer. But the full story came out, and his writing reached even deeper, with the script for the movie he directed, Wah Wah. His book of the movie, The Wah Wah Diaries, is a real contribution to the vexed subject of imperial twilight, as well as being a deliciously entertaining account of a movie on the brink of disaster. The average film star is an ego on the loose. So is the average writer. Put them together and what do you get?
Michael Frayn rules at the pinnacle of the unclassifiable. When he writes a book of philosophy, he is a philosopher; when he writes a play, he is a playwright; when he writes a novel, he a novelist. In every category he is somebody’s favourite among modern writers, but what unites his work across all the categories is a linguistic fastidiousness simultaneously both poetic and critical. People who praise him in such solemn terms, however, are in danger of being reminded that he is also a master of comedy. He has been quietly scaring the vests off his generation of writers since he first proved how much he had to burn with his Guardian column in the early 1960s. From Cambridge and national Service he seemed to arrive at the peak of Fleet Street by rocket. After a detour into television he became such a permanent force in the theatre that by now a new Frayn play seems always ready to succeed another, and its subject will illuminate a whole modern historical area when it isn’t a knock-down drag-out farce. Can an ordinary man live with the uncertainty of quantum mechanics? Can a physicist retain his trousers? Such questions intermingle also in his novels, which arrive either between, or simultaneously with, the plays.
Posy Simmonds is to the top-of-the-range British comic strip what Gary Trudeau is to the American equivalent: the exalted benchmark. But Posy’s world is a long way from Doonesbury, and far closer to Bloomsbury, although she would be quick to point out that she’s more interested in the socially aspiring than in the socially secure. The British genteel would-be intelligentsia, with all its nervous self-confidence and all its lonely self-doubt, is one of her best areas. Her knack for overheard dialogue has led some scientists to contend that her ears revolve and go beep-beep. But perhaps I, like so many writers, praise her words because we don’t know how to praise her pictures. Her uncanny graphic skill, with whole states of mind conveyed by a dot and a stroke, is beyond us. How does she do that?
Ronald Harwood came from South Africa to be an actor in London. After a voice-lift at RADA he ended up dressing an actor, Sir Donal Wolfit, and Harwood’s play about that experience, The Dresser, established him immediately in the top flight of British theatre, where he continues to rank along with Pinter, Stoppard, Nichols, Frayn, Simon Gray and others. Several of them write screenplays as a successful second career, but Harwood put the lid on it by winning a well-deserved Oscar for the script of The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski. Harwood’s stage play The Dividing Line, about the moral dilemma of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler under the Nazis, had already established the playwright’s credentials as an analyst of recent European history at its most blood-curdling, but The Pianist went where not even he had yet gone, into the pit of unpalliated horror. With more on similar subjects yet to come, Harwood is way out in front in his role as that rarest type of writer, the cool spellbinder with hot ashes for a subject. How did he get like that?
Stephen Fry, like Oscar Wilde, is fated to carry the tag “prodigy” until the day he dies. With the same combination of talents as his great predecessor, he is even harder to categorize. Wilde, for example, never tried to deliver his own lines on stage. Fry would be a valuable actor even if he never wrote a word. There is no point in trying to list his achievements in this paragraph, but I can personally vouch for one aspect of his wide range of knowledge that sometimes gets underemphasised in the press coverage: he is profoundly acquainted with poetry, as his book The Ode Less Travelled proves. The English language is in love with him and he generously attempts to reciprocate. When he arrived at my apartment for this conversation, he had already given half an hour’s riotous entertainment to the crew before we even sat him down. Then the cameras rolled and he really got going.
Victoria Wood is too alive and too productive to be talked of merely as an historic event, but it would a mistake to leave that aspect out, because modern television would be a lesser thing if she had not first broken down so many barriers. As a television dramatist alone, she is on a par with Alan Bennett, while as a creator of comedy programmes she changed the field for women and indeed for everybody, because very few of the men were trying hard enough as writers before she came on the scene and showed them what penetrating social humour should actually sound like. Above all, it should sound like an inside job. At her advent, the old framework in which Footlights graduates reported on the British social structure from above was at last outflanked, and a whole new intimacy began: often much more devastating, but always far less condescending. Such is her range, it is often easy to forget that her ability to write, and star in, a whole complex television drama is solidly based on the music-hall skills by which she can sell out the Albert Hall night after night and hold the audience enthralled on her own. When she kindly came to call, I raised these topics and others, including the recycling of household rubbish and the increasing prevalence of swearing on television — two themes that might well be closely related.
Both as a female solo act and as a pivotal figure of sketch comedy, Catherine Tate now rules the distaff castle that was built from the ground up by Victoria Wood. Tate is a worthy successor, and has opened up a whole new, and sometimes frightening, frame of reference: the British under-class. In Tate’s gallery of grotesques, a moronic, sociopathic teenager has no redeeming features. It could be said that Tate’s Nan, the harridan who can’t keep her knees together while she mouths obscenities, goes all the way back beyond Shakespeare. But the continuity was broken in the Victorian age, and even Oscar Wilde had to dress up his witch as Lady Bracknell. Tate gives us the full House of Horrors termagant. She does so, as she does everything else, with an acute ear for language and a protean acting ability which is perhaps her sole drawback, because her admirers can only dread the prospect that she might be too often lured aside to speak lines that other people write. I, too, liked her in Doctor Who, but the Catherine Tate Show is where her real gift for drama is on sumptuous display, and the public is right when it buys the DVD boxes by the trolley-load. Talking to her, I was nervously aware that I might be face to face with an historic movement. Luckily she chose to be kind, but I had an uneasy sense that she might be gathering material, and that I was it.
* Restored and augmented archive of the original clivejames.com, 2004 to 2018. Unless otherwise stated, all text and other material including audio and video is the copyright of Clive James This archive relocated June 2020 from peteatkin.com to clivejames.com. More information here.