Video: Background to “Talking in the Library” |
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The Clive James Show (Background to “Talking in the Library”)

When the Clive James Show got started under my much more diffident title Talking in the Library, the basic idea was a convergence of two main elements. One element was a vow I made during my last years in mainstream television that if I ever got the chance I would interview people who weren't always regarded as ratings bait by a network that wanted to sell more crisps. The network executives weren't necessarily wrong. If you interview Geri Halliwell the Spice Girl instead of Deborah Bull the prima ballerina, the viewing figures really do go up by a million people. But I found that my spirits went down correspondingly. There had to be another way. The second element, acquired during the course of lucrative but steadily more frustrating years in studios that squandered the gross national product of a small nation on the doomed attempt to make a small picture look stunning, was a deep distrust of what were called "production values" in mainstream television. Almost always, in my view, they were entirely irrelevant, and the whole idea might have been designed to make an interview programme as stiff as a dead cat. (If you want someone like Julian Barnes to switch off at the eyes, keep him waiting for twenty minutes while you fiddle with the lighting.) I could write a whole essay on why it is a waste of time trying to make this branch of television spectacular, when its true driving force is the talking head. But perhaps it would be better to discuss the matter on air, in this format: a format which can now be considered, I think, to have passed its initial tests.

Since late 2006, Artsworld, in return for a set of programmes they can use on air, has been staging the event. The shows now have a quality of image to suit Artsworld's high-definition transmission standards, but there is still no studio orchestra, purpose-built set, fruit-filled dressing room or spangled chorus line. In brief, the shows are still taped in my living room.

When Artsworld put the series on the air, one critic who saw the first show insisted that it must have been made in a studio, but that's a tribute to how well our crew coped with the restricted space of a second-hand bookshop six floors up from the street. As with Slate, I count myself very lucky for the help, which I welcome as a recognition of a new medium's possibilities, and not just as an established medium's exercise of economic power. Really it is an instance of a mutual readiness for adventure, and I salute the whole bunch of young executives in both organizations for having got the point. One day it will seem impossible that anyone could have missed it, but in the here and now you still have to see ahead.