Before he was the Renaissance man of trash TV, a visit to the Festival nearly made Clive James a pop sensation. He tells Aidan Smith what went wrong and why he's back
YOU'RE up early to swot. You don't turn on breakfast telly in your hotel room, fearing it could cause your concentration to veer wildly off course, much like a skateboarding duck. You arrive nice and early at his loft apartment near London's Tower Bridge, then spend the next hour and a half fretting in a coffee shop. And when your clammy finger finally makes contact with the doorbell, you wonder why you ever risk an encounter with Clive James.
"Is it on?" he says, pointing to your recorder. Is it on? Your comprehensive list of the people who would be least receptive to a snivelling plea for a re-interview has only one name on it: Clive James. Then he says: "That happened to a lovely girl who interviewed me 20 years ago. She wanted to come back and do it again and, ha ha, you know why I let her. And she knew, too, and wore a very short skirt."
But of course. You've just remembered what it's like to spend an hour in his company. He's smart, but he's also fond of slumming it. You may be only five seconds away from a namecheck for a difficult-sounding 19th century author ("You've probably read Tolstoy but what about Bulwer-Lytton?"). But eight seconds after that, Sue Ellen Ewing or some other high priestess of low culture will be added to the conversational mash-up.
I've never even read Tolstoy but used to devour James's TV reviews back in the 70s. If they were about I, Claudius rather than Dallas I'd be disappointed – until he pointed out that Southfork was actually a replay of Ancient Rome with stetsons. He's always worn his learnedness lightly, the best way.
Cultural commentator, wit, novelist, poet, telly star (retired), professional flirt (incorrigible). As someone once said, James is "a great bunch of guys". But before all of that he was director of the Cambridge Footlights for two sojourns to Edinburgh in the late 60s. They had hard acts to follow: John Cleese's Footlights had gone on to New York, and before them, of course, there had been Beyond The Fringe. But James says: "We packed the Lauriston Hall every night and the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, told us, 'I enjoyed some of your turns very much.' One of them would have been our slow-motion wrestling sketch; that got a laugh every two seconds.
"I directed because my guys and girls, Julie Covington, Pete Atkin, Robert Buckman and Russell Davies, were way more talented. I also read my poetry in the afternoons, to audiences of 11. We stayed in hideous flats with no hot water, three to a room, and lived off haggis suppers and beer from the Burke & Hare pub – but I loved the cold and classically beautiful hardness of Edinburgh and I still do. Glasgow has got its School of Art, one of the great buildings of the world, but Edinburgh has the full sweep."
James is back this year with two productions – one based round his book Cultural Amnesia; the other a chat show on stage. He will have a hotel bed to himself, warm baths, steak cooked the way he likes it – and no Atkin keeping him awake with his guitar. Forty years ago in Edinburgh, however, adversity produced art. 'Thief In The Night', lyrics by James, was one of the songs with which he and Atkin tried to become a pop double-act as brilliant as Burt Bacharach and Hal David. They failed but, undeterred, re-recorded an album's worth earlier this year. "It was probably my fault we didn't become world-famous," admits James. "Still, as Pete says, 'Hey, we're obscure again!'"
James admits he did a disappearing act for four years while he wrote Cultural Amnesia, a book which could intimidate you by size alone – 898 pages – never mind some of the obscure names it profiles. But during a discussion about Joseph Goebbels, its author is only three lines away from a riff on Richard Burton's odd hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare. Touring the tome, he gets requests like he's the pop performer he never quite became: "Do your Hitler! Do your Judith Krantz!"
It's the book he gave up TV to write, but the one he's writing now – the fourth volume of his memoirs, Prelude To The Aftermath – is taking him straight back there. "I'm trying to resist saying that TV has got worse in the interim. That would be the classic reaction of someone no longer involved, and for all I know I was one moment away from the boot."
Does he still get TV offers? "Oh, six a week. The director of a documentary about a tricycle race across Mexico will assume that I'd make his film more interesting, and he'd be right, but I don't want to do that kind of thing."
His kind of thing was somewhere between entertainment and edification. "You fell between two stools and the trick was to make the fall look like a dive." As a critic, he took a dim view of chat shows and upset Michael Parkinson by dismissing them as "easy". But when he turned host he soon discovered they weren't. "It's unnatural, harder than driving, you have to listen and think ahead and that's almost impossible. Everything is conspiring to make it feel like a flight to Germany in a B-17 – one fighter attack after another."
He cringes as he recalls a five-day wait for Barbra Streisand and the "compulsory ebullience" of Tom Cruise, bouncing on his sofa and forcing him to join in, some years before the Oprah Winfrey outrage. So who would he like to interview in Edinburgh? "Well, Cary Grant's dead but he was a fascinating man who only ever talked to women journalists if he planned to marry them." Gordon Brown? "Ha! Well, there would be no compulsory ebullience but I actually believe in him. I never believed in Tony Blair. He wasn't anybody, or else he was everybody."
The Scottish Raj's influence may be diminishing, but James was never one of its critics. "One of my best editors, Karl Miller at The Listener, was a Scot, so I've always had a good appreciation of the cultural difference. I'm a product of the Australian educational system, which was more like the Scottish one with its emphasis on language and grammar. That's all I have. It's not my pretty face that ever got me a job."
James, 69 this autumn, tries not to worry about his legacy. "My obits will probably read 'Schwarzenegger Man Dies' because I once likened Arnie to a brown condom full of walnuts." Always guarded on the subject of his wife and two daughters, he recently admitted that if he could have his time again, he'd have put family before work. That read like a confession, I say. "That read like a lie! No, you are who you are and I regret that writers really aren't worth living with. But the kids got used to it and now they quite like me. And my wife could have married someone else. There was that nice Norwegian physicist with the white Mercedes – he had everything. But she liked my jokes!"
Don't we all.
Clive James in Conversation, Assembly @ George Street, (0131-623 3030), August 19-24 August, 4.30pm; Clive James in the Evening, Assembly @ Queens Hall, (0131-623 3030), same dates, 7.30pm.clivejamesguests.com