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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003