“Schwarzenegger man dies”: Why Clive James was my hero – Aidan Smith
I’m writing this, as is traditional, not knowing what the headline will be but I sincerely hope that the smart people in charge of the big, grabby words will plump for “Schwarzenegger man dies”. This is what Clive James told me he expected his obituaries to say. All that fine and lyrical phrase-making, boiled down to just one joke.
But I reckon the great Australian, who died last week, is up there hoping he still might read the headline somewhere, even ironically. Likening Schwarzenegger to a brown condom full of walnuts is a good gag, but tragically Schwarzenegger is too long a name for most newspapers. How about “Arnie man dies”? It’s the least we can do, I feel.
James was a jolly swagman from the suburbs of Sydney but Scots and Scotland helped shape his wonderful career. You learn a bit about this from the preface of the first collection of his wonderful telly crits, Visions Before Midnight (though you won’t learn it from my yellowed copy, price £3.95, as you ain’t getting anywhere near that book – it’s my votive object).
Before he dazzled for The Observer, legitimising writing about the idiot-lantern, he did it for The Listener where Karl Miller – Loanhead, Midlothian-born and educated at The Royal High School – was the most rigorous and Calvinistic of bosses who anticipated testing days by hoisting an umbrella at his desk and edited with “a blue pencil [wielded] like a blunt hypodermic about to be thrown into my upper arm”.
James continued: “If he suspected me of professional dereliction, however minor, his wrath shook the walls. Since I suffer from an unduly thin skin, my days with The Listener were consequently numbered [but] it was Karl Miller who gave me the courage of my apparent lack of convictions... who let me write a column which eschewed solemnity so thoroughly that it courted the frivolous.” James was always desperate to make the Ed laugh, but Miller wasn’t laughing when his man, unable to live on £7 a week, took the higher-paid gig. Miller was “more Calvinistic than ever” on matters of loyalty. “He tried to fire me as I walked through the door but my letter of resignation was in my pocket. I left it with his secretary and high-tailed it out of the blast area.” James wanted us to know, though, that if his writing has “any virtues” then much is owed to Miller’s influence.
I’ve a confession to make
Any virtues? Every Sunday, from the other side of the breakfast table’s mound of lightly fired morning rolls, I would impatiently wait for my father to finish chortling at James administering some light-firing of his own to TV’s titans and titches and pass the paper to me. Any virtues? I am doing this job because of James and his weekly examinations of the cathode-ray tube, still striving to pen a line as funny as: “By a tragic fluke of inattention I missed the immortal moment when Frank Bough said, ‘Harry Commentator is your carpenter’... ”
Confession-time: sometimes I’ve ripped him off. I’m pretty sure I always credited him with describing the 1980 Wimbledon men’s singles final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as “the most exciting tennis match since Henry VIII played Dan Maskell” but have the terrible feeling I may have claimed “little lemon smile” as my own. Re-reading James the other night confirmed it to be my writerly hero’s line, used about the same Harry Carpenter when he had to ad-lib like mad during a SW19 rain break.
I’m also worried about Dallas. Did I, when discussing the everyday story of incestuous, oil-drilling folk, acknowledge that it was James who first noticed that JR Ewing’s hat-band appeared to have been fashioned from crushed budgerigars, or that his lush of a wife Sue Ellen didn’t have a problem with booze so much as a “pralm”?
Carpenter, Bough, Alan Weeks, David Vine, Michael Aspel. Men who just a few years before would have worn dinner jackets for the cameras. Men who did a solid job in a live setting for which they might have expected some respect, or if not that, then allowances to be made. Men who James looked at with that crinkle-eyed grin of his and thought: “Bugger it, I can have fun with these guys.” This was his genius: not being po-faced, not thinking lowbrow was beneath the critic, being serious now and again but mostly drilling down into the sub-strata of unintentional humour that exists within television and, like JR, striking it rich.
James did many other things, including poetry and songwriting, and the first expressions of both came, as he told me on one of the handful of occasions I interviewed him, during sojourns to the Edinburgh Festival in the late 1960s with the Cambridge Footlights – the troupe including Pete Atkin who sang his ditties and Julie Covington. He recalled: “We packed the Lauriston Hall every night and the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, told us: ‘I enjoyed some of your sketches very much.’ One of them would have been the slow-motion wrestling; that got a laugh every two seconds.
“I directed because everyone else was way more talented but I did 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. Glasgow has got its School of Art, one of the great buildings of the world [this was 2008], but Edinburgh has the full sweep.”
James had the full sweep. “A great bunch of guys” someone once called him. Sorry for the outright theft, Clive, but with a little lemon smile I’ll promise never to do it again.