Comedy: AN HOUR WITH CLIVE JAMES Australia House, London

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The Independent Culture
Minutes before the start of An Hour with Clive James at the unusual venue of Australia House last week, the star of the show was nervously pacing the Strand, puffing on a cheroot. He had no need to worry. His entrance was greeted by the kind of whooping adulation normally reserved for his compatriot Dame Edna Everage. The similarities with the Housewife Superstar don't end there. Like her, James is a national icon, good with words and not averse to the odd spurt of smut. The difference is that he throws in more references to Baudelaire.

Coming from a country often derided by the British for celebrating philistinism, James has long had to endure cracks about Australian culture: the biggest oxymoron this side of military intelligence etc. Barry Humphries's creation Sir Les Patterson, the yobbish Australian cultural attache, has for years gained comic mileage from this one joke. But James has overcome these prejudices. He's as smart as they come - and not afraid to let you know it.

He has always delighted in showing off the breadth of his brow - rapping on any subject from Miss TV Times to Thomas Mann. On Thursday, his obituary of Johnny Weismuller was followed by a eulogy to Matisse. A poem about Henry VIII's codpiece typically intermingled brains and bawdiness. Only occasionally did he trip over his own learning and fall into pretentiousness, as with his poem likening Greta Scacchi to the sea.

There have surely not been so many Australians gathered together at a European cultural event since the last Munich Beer Festival. It was standing- room only in the splendour of the Exhibition Hall - all marble colonnades, gilt-painted shields and gratuitously colossal chandeliers. Do Australian taxpayers realise quite how extravagant Australia House is?

As the hall began to overflow, the doormen were turning people away - "a huge difference from the first poetry reading I ever gave," James recalled, "where the doormen were stopping people getting out."

As the mixed audience - pony-tails rubbing shoulders with pinstripes - sipped from cans of Fosters, James regaled them with a Greatest Hits compilation from his books. It was easy enough for him - all he had to do was prepare a few one-liners (he warned us that "the unsigned copies of my books are the rare ones") and invite the audience three times over to enjoy him further by purchasing his books at the stall by the bar - canny placement, that.

But it's hard to deny his popularity. Which other contemporary writer would receive rapturous applause on announcing that he or she was going to read an excerpt from a TV review of Cliff Richard? At the end he even gave us an encore. Who'd have thought it? Reading is the new rock 'n' roll.

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