TELEVISION / Big, beautiful and they live for ever

IN 1968, I was raiding my grandmother's cupboard for dressing- up clothes when I found a red sateen book. Picked out on the cover in gold letters was the title, Hollywood Album. Inside, a craggy khaki sahib called Stewart Granger reclined on a zebra rug with his wife Jean Simmons in their charming Bel Air home. Jennifer Jones tossed her blue- black curls away from her amazing cheekbones, only to afford a better view of her sensational throat. A nymph by the name of Diana Dors posed among classical statues, defying you to distinguish one marble goddess from another. The photographs had a molten sheen, as if bathing in a shallow lake of mercury. Their subjects had big heads and small white teeth; all appeared to be lit from within. On one picture of an older man with merry, scrunched eyes, I recognised my aunt's faded handwriting: 'The King, RIP.' It was eerie. Who was Clark Gable, and why had a grown-up bothered to record his death? I didn't give it much thought, I was busy making plans. I would grow up to be Jennifer Jones, I would marry the one called Gary Cooper, we would live in a canyon, whatever that was, and recline graciously on a variety of endangered species. We would be famous.

I remembered Clark Gable RIP during Clive James - Fame in the Twentieth Century (BBC1), just as James was intoning over footage of Rudolf Valentino's funeral: 'For millions of women his loss was the occasion of real and lasting grief which pundits prefer to call mass hysteria. Why else should otherwise normal people treat the life and death of a man who wore funny hats as if it was a matter of life and death?' A big question, one of the more potent of our age, though scarcely big enough to sustain an eight-part series which has clearly set out to do for celebrity what Kenneth Clark did for art history.

Clark had a clear advantage over James; he had an aristocrat's disdain for being liked. He could address Civilisation to a middle class eager to learn the difference between Gericault and Jericho. When he talked down, you didn't mind because you were glad to rest your neck from craning to see his highbrow. A serious man speaking seriously to an audience prepared to be serious. The presence of James's own name in the title of Fame hints at more complex ambitions. It looks like self- importance, but it is there to grab viewers. Fame is an expensive project in a prime slot. The people who commissioned it are counting on the millions who tune in to see Clive being sarky about sake to stick with him as he takes them on a more demanding journey. James has to present a serious theme with a light enough touch not to spook the EastEnders crowd, but with enough substance to flatter the Omnibus watchers. His stall is pitched on quaking ground somewhere between Bernie Winters and Jacob Bronowski. If James forgot to smile, it was understandable. Trying to create intelligent entertainment for a mass audience is no joke.

Still, he picked a peach of a subject for illustrations. After a brief word on his thesis - that the invention of film and recorded sound created 20th-century fame - James withdrew to voiceover and we were off into the most astonishing archive footage I have ever seen: Louis Bleriot, with his Spaniel ear-flaps, taking off in a plane ingeniously constructed from lolly sticks, Marie Curie, a stolid elderly bod, accepting a medal that had to be pulled down over the huge cloche hat under which she hid her shyness. Cut to cinema's Curie: Greer Garson, so glowing she could have been eating radium rather than inventing it. James fixed the paradox: 'Hollywood had made Curie human. The real Curie already was human, the Garson version wasn't, but that was what fame did: simplify what was real so that people could take it in.' It sounded disarmingly like his own method.

James spared us too much of the neurotic-creatures-trapped- in-a-gilded-cage stuff, and wondered, more interestingly, what need it was they satisfied in us. The commentary wore its learning lightly, pivoting on the ironic repetitions that either grace or bedevil James's prose, depending on your point of view. Sometimes, he brought more word power to the script than the script could bear. The description of Madonna - 'self-motivated, self-managed, self-sustaining state of self- publicity. Self-conscious and conscious of nothing else' - was self-defeating. And the quick march of his argument tended to leave questions begging, as when, over film of Elvis, James wondered 'What kind of fame is that, if it turns a dead human being into a living god?' Jesus, what about Christianity?

Elsewhere, Fame provoked and beguiled. In a sequence on the close-up, while the voiceover explained how film's capacity to make faces big had brought new meaning to 'larger-than-life' and given the human race a way to worship itself, we saw Rita Hayworth play a sublimely sexy peekaboo with the camera, Orson Welles smile deliciously in the shadows, and Arnie turn his magnificent head like a mastiff made by Nasa. Look away, if you can] Here was the power that James described, the thralldom John Updike found in 'those giant dreams projected across our Saturday nights, that hinted at how, if we were angels, we would behave'. Fame would have been guaranteed huge ratings, had it not been for the pensive superstar on the other side, his magnificent head like an Old English Sheepdog soaked too long in Dreft. Inspector Morse (ITV) was back.

This is the last series, and a terrible wailing could be heard in the land, though not from the usual quarter. Mrs Lewis was quiet as the grave, which was ominous in an episode that ended up with more corpses than the Duchess of Malfi. Still, there was life in the format yet. Morse was denied his customary doomed crush on a Hannah Gordon lookalike with a weakness for Bach and embezzlement. What became of that nice lady pathologist? Are we not to see our grumpy lad fixed up before the final curtain? The plot eschewed the usual elegant cliffhanger for a shoal of red herrings fished out of Agatha Christie, which felt uncomfortably like cheating. As usual, the supporting cast was strong enough to pass Baywatch off as Ibsen. Janet Suzman did eloquent things with an eyebrow, Brian Cox looked as sad and suspect as a gargoyle, while the Inspector (John Thaw) made another dent in female hearts with his tenderness for a brain- dead girl. Thaw says he won't do another series. Morse the pity.

The Trouble With Medicine (BBC2) was bad for your blood pressure. We learnt that Japanese doctors are relaxing the code of silence that has kept patients in trusting ignorance till their last breath. Dr Higashi had taken glasnost literally. When he left the theatre where he had performed a mastectomy to meet the patient's family, he was carrying a box. 'Oh no,' it says in my notes. Oh, yes. 'Dr Higashi can rely on Japanese families not to show their emotions,' the voiceover crooned. As he tipped the severed breast on to the table, British families will have proved less reliable.

The subtle, imaginative Graham Greene Trilogy (BBC2), which sadly ran out of steam on the third leg, found room for a dissenting voice. Anthony Burgess did not think Greene was a great novelist - too cold. Refreshing stuff in an arts documentary, a genre that has taken to approaching its subjects as people were wont to draw near the King of Siam. Crawling. But sharp- eyed viewers will have spotted the chip on Burgess's shoulder. He once dedicated a novel to Greene, and fancied that, with Evelyn Waugh, they formed the great trio of Catholic novelists. Greene did not concur. The friendship cooled. The day after Greene's death, Burgess wrote a piece in which he pulled him up for slackness: The Honorary Consul had given the wrong recipe for Lancashire Hotpot.

A better measure of Greene's genius came as you watched friends and admirers leaving his memorial service. I recognised one of them immediately - the camel coat and trilby, the chapped, liverish complexion, the womanish mouth pulling on a long fag. It was a Graham Greene character. Even a curmudgeon could not deny the peculiar potency of the world he had created; its unsettled moral climate, the shifty look of its citizens.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week