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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor