TELEVISION / Big, beautiful and they live for ever
Sunday 10 January 1993
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.
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