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A Point of View : Postcard from Cyberspace

by Tom Geoghegan

The love affair between Clive James and mainstream television may have ended five years ago. But on the eve of his new weekly Radio 4 broadcast which will be featured on the Magazine, he waxes lyrical about the new object of his affection, the web.

Clive James makes an unlikely webcasting pioneer. The self-confessed pen-and-paper man, who jokes that he can hardly turn on a computer, was part of the television landscape for 20 years. Other fans remember him for his work as columnist and writer, but few would have expected the 67-year-old Australian to carve out a niche online. His impressive multi-media website, which acts as a one-stop shop for much of his work, may encourage other broadcasters and writers to follow suit. There is work by James and his favourite authors, plus webcasts of dozens of interviews conducted in his living room with the likes of Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Cate Blanchett. And the enthusiasm for his new form of expression comes out in a series of typical Jamesian images.

“It’s like simultaneously painting and skating and dancing and singing,” he says. “Everything at once. It’s terrific fun. I hope it’s going to be a clearing in the jungle, an oasis, a cross between a space station and a university campus.”

The production costs are covered by the channel Artsworld, which broadcasts some of his material, and Slate magazine in the US. The embryonic vision for this was formed way back in 1996, when he first viewed a webcast, in narrowband, and knew it was going to change everything.

Artistic tension

“What I saw about the web is its infinite capacity to absorb and transmit material without taking up any space. It doesn’t weigh anything. So it’s off your conscience. If you give all your books to a library you’re taking up space.”

The book remains the most advanced piece of technology, in his view, but the web offered him an element of control over content which he sorely lacked on television. He concedes there had always been a healthy tension between his serious artistic side — the critic, author, poet and lyricist — and the lighter entertainment which had made him famous. But it came to breaking point on his chatshow when ITV refused his choice of guest, prima ballerina Deborah Bull, in favour of Ginger Spice.

“Geri Halliwell is a nice person and it’s true the ratings do go up by a million if you interview a Spice Girl rather than a ballerina. That’s what’s crushing about mainstream television. There’s only one way round that. And that’s to get off mainstream TV and into a niche market.”

There is no sense of regret about the move although some commentators have suggested that, like many television presenters before him, his time was up. So he vanished from the nation’s living rooms in 2001 to write. And write. And write. Now the fruits of four years of labour are about to be revealed in his forthcoming epic book on modern culture, Cultural Amnesia, which follows hot on the heels of the fourth volume of his memoirs, North Face of Soho. His time away from the small screen has not dulled his appreciation of it. If he was still a television critic, as he was for 10 years, he would be singing the praises of The West Wing, The Sopranos and Catherine Tate, he says.

“The actual quality has gone up, although the average has gone down because of reality television. You can watch people on screen doing endlessly nothing, but the history programmes Laurence Rees did on the Nazis for the BBC are better than anything else you’ll find. The best TV is as good as it’s ever been or better.”

James has repeatedly turned down I’m A Celebrity, by telling them he did not want to see again the patch of Australian jungle where he was born. And although he admires Strictly Come Dancing, he has refused appearing out of respect for the integrity of the tango. He laments the passing of television schedules which placed the high arts nestling alongside family entertainment on prime time. But he is realistic enough to recognise that TV executives could no longer paternalistically impose their taste on audiences in the digital age.

“You’ll still get ballet and opera and there’s a niche for them but you won’t get them unexpectedly turning up on a mainstream channel, which was the mission of television controllers after World War II: ’bring arts to the people, we’ll smuggle it in.’ They used to put it on with Morecambe and Wise. Those days are gone and they’re not coming back. I liked that idea but it couldn’t survive in a competitive commercial culture.”


James is as happy discussing Buffy as he is Bertrand Russell, and in one memorable essay he argues why The Sopranos is superior to The Godfather. In the same eclectic way, his television work includes the chat show, the authored documentary and snippets of foreign trashy television. The latter could arguably have paved the way for the kind of content popular on YouTube.

“Some people give me personal credit for destroying the whole of world television by publicising the Japanese gameshow. The only point I ever made was that the Japanese were having fun. It never occurred to me that the format would conquer the world. That was YouTube.”

Among his many new projects, few excite him more than his weekly BBC Radio 4 broadcast, A Point of View, which begins on Friday and will be available as transcript here on the Magazine. This is his “dream gig” and he intends to engage and entertain listeners on any topic in the news. The first broadcast will tackle wheelie bins, a subject which he says exercises him at the home he shares with his wife in Cambridgeshire.

“The thing I do on A Point of View is an old man’s sport, there’s no young version so it’s fitting for me in my twilight years. I’m not exactly in the departure lounge yet. My retirement is turning out to be very busy.”

And in keeping with his new multi-media guise, he has secured permission to transmit it on his website, and hopes to eventually have transcript in more than a dozen languages to help his foreign fans who are learning English.

A Point of View is on BBC Radio 4 at 2250 GMT on Friday and 0850 GMT on Sunday.

Questions from readers

Stig: Did your wonderful phrase in your Observer column “when one of your footsteps goes silent” spring from a particular encounter with dog mess?
Clive: I was in the gathering dusk and I suddenly realised there was an eerie silence coming from my left foot. I looked down. I wrote a column on it. I was the first really scientific student of dog mess.

Matthew: Any chance we can see you commentating for F1 again? The ’85 season tape is simply the best.
Clive: It’s really up to Bernie Ecclestone and if he asked me I don’t think there’d be time, but I loved doing it. And it will take real money because there are rights involved.

Candace: What do you make of the popularity of Chopper Reid videos on Google?
Clive: He’s a homicidal maniac and some people like watching those people. I on the whole try to avoid those people.


I met Clive James in Davos when I was about 10 yrs old — it was him that influenced me to learn Japanese — which I subsequently read at Oxford. I have read all of his books. What a master of diction.
William Stevens, London

Much like Noel Edmunds has recently proven, talent never dies it just goes out fashion for a while. Its great to have Clive’s wit back in my life again, keep it up!
Rob Woiwod, London

Literate and witty, Clive James was always too good for television. I might also add to the commendation of his Pete Atkin collaboration. May he simply continue to enjoy himself and entertain us at the same time.
Gerard Eastick, Edinburgh

Loved the TV programme and the books and think he is sorely missed. As a chat show host, he actually gave people room to talk. His wicked comments were always flagged up by a gleam in the eye that told you something good was coming. Online interviews with interesting people who may not have got on the TV programme — yes please.
Sandra Byrne, Stocksfield

Clive, I would love you to write a long poem comparable to Cowper’s The Task ,which would be your commentary on Britain and the politics, fashions, literature, thought of these times, an update on your peregrine poem...
margaret harding, Bodle Street

Clive James — he’s still a genius...... a Jamesian anecdote: my copy of Brilliant Creatures was invaluable in Africa — I don’t think I missed a mosquito with it once, and a wonderful read all into the bargain (even if it was 15 years ago!). Good to see you’re back with new material — can’t wait to read it!
Ewan, Edinburgh

Will you be touring with Pete Atkin again soon? Those albums from the 70s remain some of my all time favourites, linking great lyrics with fine tunes and it has been great to see them performed live after all this time.
David Williams, Basingstoke

James Rai, Bristol

But doesn’t the web have in spades the very thing that put Clive off television? Not only do you never need to watch a ballerina again, but by setting your filtering agents properly you can automatically avoid ballerinas without the manual effort of switching channels, and indeed you can spend your whole life blissfully unaware that such a creature even exists.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade

I’d like you to present a literary version of “The Shock Of The New” If you do — then remember folks, you read it here first...........
Alan Weston, Bishops Stortford