Out in a ‘blaze of obscurity’: the poet who was an improbable TV star
Aussie-born Clive James invented modern television criticism and became a luminary of the medium
Clive James, who has died aged 80, was an old-fashioned man of letters – a critic, essayist, poet and novelist – who thanks to his wit and affability became an improbable star of television.
He first made his name in the 1970s as television critic of The Observer, with a much-imitated column that combined a self-consciously literary style with spectacular personal rudeness. He described Arnold Schwarzenegger as resembling “a large brown condom filled with walnuts”, Frank Sinatra’s hair transplant as looking like “a gorilla’s armpit”, and the tennis player Andrea Jaeger, who was then aged 15 and wore braces on her teeth, as having “a smile like a car crash”.
Though he mocked the medium extravagantly, James relished appearing on it, and was a natural performer. To begin with he effectively transferred his column to the screen, in Clive James on Television, on which he offered droll highbrow commentary on lowbrow television footage, particularly of Japanese game shows. Exploiting to comic effect his own marked lack of physical glamour – it was said of him that he looked like a bank robber who had forgotten to remove the stocking from his head, and as a burly Australian he was inevitably compared to Abel Magwitch – he branched out into documentaries about his encounters with beautiful women: The Clive James Paris Fashion Show; Clive James and the Calendar Girls; The Clive James Great American Beauty Pageant; Clive James Meets the Supermodels...