Clive James continues telling the story of his life by describing the years he spent wrestling with the one-eyed monster that is television: trying to make entertaining programmes that were interesting, told a story, or produced some penetrating insight from a celebrity guest. Although I'm a big fan of his writing, I should say that I'm less interested in his work for TV - partly because, not possessing one, I've hardly seen any of it, and also because I'm less enamoured of his speaking voice than his writing one. So my expectations of this book weren't high before I started it. As it turned out, however, I ended up enjoying it a lot - in fact, somewhat more than the previous volume of his memoirs, North Face of Soho, which deals with his entry into the London media world.
I think one of the reasons for this is that there's more going on: the scouring of the world's TV output for the peculiar or amusing (culminating in - or rather, beginning with - his exposure of the Japanese game show "Endurance"), the trips to cities around the world for the "Postcard" series, the celebrity interviews and the end-of-the-year show. He describes the work that goes into putting the programmes together, highlights what can go wrong when some important detail is missed, and is always careful to acknowledge the efforts of his colleagues (the producers, the editors, the researchers) lest anyone think that all he had to do was turn up and start talking. He also describes how much time all this takes, and how he tried to find space in a packed schedule in order to write essays and reviews (collected together in books like Snake Charmers in Texas and The Dreaming Swimmer), novels such as Brrm! Brrm! and The Silver Castle and, indeed, earlier volumes of his memoirs (a self-reference which reminds me of a hall of mirrors, or a serpent eating its tail).
The jokes don't come as thick or fast as in some of his other books, and certainly not as much as the first instalment (Unreliable Memoirs) which is one of the funniest books I've ever read. Instead, there's more of a sober assessment of what he's (tried to) produce, and a consciousness of the passing of time (this book was published on his 70th birthday). The valedictory note becomes more prevalent at the close, when he muses on colleagues and friends - including the Princess of Wales - now departed. The limits of time and energy are what we all have to work within, but not all of us transcend them as well as this most adept of writers. Even as he lays down the final word on p325 ("I've always been a lucky man") he characteristically anticipates the reaction of a reader who thinks they've detected his swollen head: "Try to forgive me if I pay myself the compliment that I was wise enough to know it".
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Clive James continues his memoirs with the section that most of the public,(myself included), remember him best for, his work on TV. He talks of the pioneering methods used on 'Clive James' on TV such as the, not always entirely successful, satellite link ups and a weekly look at other cultures on their own TV stations, such as the entirely unhinged Japanese game show 'Endurance' which often seemed to Western audiences more like legalized torture than fun. He talks candidly here of many interviews both those that worked and the often far more interesting disasters. There is no doubt James is not trying to bite the feeding hand here but it has to be said his inability to view all his recollections with anything other than a very jaundiced eye becomes pretty wearing before too long. However this has to be pointed out as being a minor grumble as the sheer weight of fascinating memories and the huge array of stars, many of whom have since passed away, and equally fascinating stories really do hold you transfixed as he openly shares his thoughts. His impact on the way television was presented and the way a shows presenter should behave challenged the rather stuffy ideals of his day and opened up the world, not simply to be laughed at, but to be embraced and admired. It's to his credit he doesn't spend any time blowing his own trumpet here and, despite the sharp humour, he does seem to appreciate the contribution of all the people he met. I suppose this was always going to suffer in comparison with the previous 4 volumes which were erudite and insightful with a wealth of knowledge on display. After all television more often than not dumbs everything down and so memoirs of a television career are going to reflect that dumbing down to some extent. Nevertheless even the weakest of his autobiographies is funnier, sharper & far more interesting than the vast majority of truly dull memoirs which flood the bookshelves every month. Unlike those Mr.James has something to say and has been blessed with a keen wit and searching eye that makes his memories come alive. So all in all this is perhaps a little waspish but he remains a very genial host well worth listening to.
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Okay - I nail my colours to the mast straight away in saying I am a fan having got copies of all the previous volumes. Is this the best? Simply - no. At times in the second half of the book it as if he is struggling what to write about. This means that he slips into very short "star" anecdotes about guests on his shows. If they were worth including in the book, why not say more? The text is marked by Clive's usual style of writing, i.e. as you read it is almost impossible not to hear his voice in your head. For me this is a good thing. His views on where television might have gone wrong are interesting, although there is less of the "academic" writing that characterised earlier volumes of his autobiographies. I did enjoy the book and would recommend it, especially if you enjoyed his earlier books.
Like the other volumes in this series, Clive James has the ability to keep you entertained and at the same time give you pause for thought. For anyone outside the television industry it provides an insight into it's workings as well as it's politics.
I am continually impressed by Mr. James' writting, he has the skill to give you two or three thoughts in the space of as many pages.
I love television and thoroughly enjoyed this book.