The artist formerly known as Vivian James was initially more famous for writing about television than appearing on it, with his column in The Observer pretty much inventing the concept of television criticism as we know it today, and by extension TV Cream we suppose, given he was the first person to realise the likes of David Vine and Frank Bough were just as important and influential to viewers as the great actors and directors. Required reading for everyone in the industry, it was no surprise when the invites to appear on telly came in, and like everyone else in Fleet Street he presented an edition or two of What The Papers Say, seen here with a frightening abundance of hair.
Other shows also wanted a piece of that droll Aussie wit, and his most regular telly gig came back in 1972 on the Beeb via Late Night Line-Up spin-off, Up Sunday. One to file under Wouldn’t Happen Now, this low-concept show invited the likes of Willie Rushton, Cuddly Ken, Viv Stanshall and Clive to do – well – whatever the hell they liked, embarking on flights of whimsy about what they’d been thinking about that week. Unfortunately, seemingly nothing from the series exists, which is a great shame, although we’re quite pleased we can’t see the moment where Viv Stanshall fell over, cut his hand on some glass and sent blood spurting all over the studio floor. What we do know is that Clive would often request an elaborate costume for his piece, including, on one occasion a full suit of armour, and the crew would have their fun by rehearsing his bit first, but recording it last so he’d have to keep it on for ages. He’d got wise to that by the time he was a regular guest on Granada’s seminal So It Goes, a job that was basically just reading out his column on air.
Clive’s first proper bit of telly where he was an integral part of proceedings came in 1978, thanks to the grand folly that was Saturday Night People on LWT. Wisely confined only to the London area, this was basically a dinner party on the telly with the personnel and their guests gossiping about who they did and didn’t like and swapping bawdy anecdotes. Said personnel, alongside Clive, were Russell Harty and Janet Street-Porter, all sat behind little desks. Janet later said it was a disastrous production as Russell was fed up to being demoted to co-host after years of his own show so refused to let anyone else speak, and Clive didn’t prepare anything other than writing a few notes on his hands which he then couldn’t read. The whole thing was axed pretty sharpish but there’s an episode up there if you fancy it, and if you don’t just skip to the end for Janet’s grovelling apology to Francis Wilson.
Awful though Saturday Night People was, LWT clearly thought it was worth persisting with Clive, and hence in 1982 he gave up his column – “with increasing frequency I find my own face looking back at me” – and took on telly full time. Pretty soon he’d landed two formats which would then form the basis of his career across two channels for the next two decades. The first was the travelogue where he’d pitch up in a city, partake in some demeaning activities and hook up with some conveniently placed famous faces, all linked together with his trademark arch commentary. We think this is his first one, from Vegas.
The other format saw Clive as our guide to increasingly deranged clips from foreign television. In fact we’ve got Denis Norden to thank for this as he did a one-off called Denis Norden’s World of Television in 1980, stringing together odd bits from foreign TV, but Clive took on the job when they made a series in 1982 and stayed behind his desk, seemingly in front of a studio audience of 10 people, for the next five years. And like Denis Norden’s shows, his links made it seem a bit more cerebral than just laughing at funny foreigners. Fifties American TV and Japanese gameshows were the staple, and while Clive could sometimes appear smug and sneery, he certainly put his money where he mouth is by travelling to Japan to take part in Endurance himself.
Clive enjoyed several years on ITV but, in 1988, he was poached by the Beeb, at seemingly huge expense, although the Corporation certainly got their money’s worth as he was all over the schedules. Along with his travelogues, now going under the name Postcard From X, his first engagement was The Late Show with Clive James on BBC2 – which actually started six months before the actual Late Show. It was surely the ultimate Alan Yentob commission; 45 minutes of Clive and suitably clever mates like Jonathan Miller and Alan Coren discussing the big issues of the age, perfect post-dinner party viewing. It ran for about a year although the only one anyone remembers is the night Lenny Henry invaded the studio while Red Nose Day was on BBC1. After that ended it mutated into The Talk Show with Clive James where he’d discuss philosophy, art and politics with a noted thinker, and it all oozed class.
Few people were better at shuffling seamlessly from high to low culture than Clive, and his big show for the Beeb was Saturday Night Clive. Launched in 1989, he claimed the show would examine the world’s ever-expanding media to find out what was really going on, which actually meant a load more daft telly clips and swapping gags with his comedy mates. Beginning on BBC2, by 1991 it was popular enough to be promoted to BBC1, and it’s his first BBC1 episode up there, which we vividly remember as it was promoted by Clive and Mel Brooks popping up between all the other programmes that night, Mel asking Clive if it was on yet. In 1994 it became Sunday Night Clive but everything remained pretty much the same, essaying cleverclogs comedy in fine style.
And during his spell at the Beeb, Clive also found himself as our man at the gate of the year. In fact, for all its cliches, up until the fireworks and live bands became an annual event a few years ago, for a long time the Beeb didn’t have a traditional New Year’s Eve show and all manner of things bridged midnight during the seventies and eighties, from the disastrous Live Into 85 to special editions of Wogan and even EastEnders. Clive was probably the nearest we got to an annual fixture, popping up for seven years between 1988-89 and 1994-95 to present his smartarse review of the year, giving out awards to the likes of Yasmin Arafat. In 1989 he got a whole two hours to review the entire decade.
Clive churned out hundreds of hours of television while he was at the Beeb, but his biggest pet project came in 1993 with Fame In The 20th Century, a series of televised essays where he mused on what it took to become famous by examining the careers of pretty much every celebrity who’d ever lived in the previous hundred years. There was a book to go with it too, but Clive pointed out it could never be repeated or released commercially as it featured about 10 million archive clips.
In 1995, Clive and his team – many of whom had come over from his LWT days – told the Beeb they were interested in setting up as an independent production company to make their shows. The Beeb offered some advice and watched them create Watchmaker Productions, and then were somewhat surprised a few weeks later to be told they’d just gone to ITV. After a decade away, Clive was back on the other side, although with his crew in tow it was pretty much business as usual, in the same Sunday night slot (it was even filmed at TV Centre). Now renamed The Clive James Show, it was your standard Clive mix of star interviews and silly clips, although on ITV any pretence of it discussing the media went out of the window and it was now pretty much a full-on comedy; Clive generously playing straightman each week to a guest comedian who’d review the news, while the shows were sung out by the unforgettable Margarita Pracatan, who was soon introducing “Meester Clibe Javes” at the start of the show too.
As well as that, Clive’s ITV work included more of the Postcards, and when the channel got the rights to Formula One, as a noted motor racing fan he had the honour of presenting a special show to launch their coverage. One other new series was Clive James On TV, and despite it being included on its Wikipedia page, it absolutely wasn’t the return of Clive James On Television – which had continued since his departure with Keith Floyd, disastrously, and then Chris Tarrant for many years. Instead this was an amiable clip show where Clive would trace a genre of British telly over the years, with a celebrity audience present to laugh at embarrassing moments of themselves from the archives. It was all light as a feather fun, which ran for two series – one at 8.30pm, one oddly after 11pm – and in those days you had to get your archive kicks where you could find them. Obviously the most prominent episode online is the one about sci-fi, including sundry Who clippage.
Clive spent five years at ITV – with The Clive James Show shuffling to weeknights and becoming the familiarly-titled Monday Night Clive – and revived another of his old formats for the Night Of 1000 Years in 1999, applying his traditional style to the past millennium of news, and with Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie on writing duties. And indeed those two were among the only people to know that it was actually going to be his last proper telly show, as he’d decided he was getting too old for it and wanted to jack it in and go back to writing. So as the 20th Century came to an end, Clive took his leave of ITV and telly in general, concentrating his efforts on essays, poems and books…