TELEVISION / Rediscovering the missing link: Mark Lawson wonders whether Fame has spoilt Clive James

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DURING his great tenure as a television critic, Clive James had much chortling sport with a piece of small-screen grammar called 'The Nationwide link.' A 6pm BBC 1 magazine show that made a pioneer attempt to combine hard and soft news, Nationwide was, of necessity, required to move the viewer as smoothly as possible between violently opposite topics. Presenters would use a combination of word-play and vocal shift. Bridging from an item on the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, to one on fashion, the host might say: 'And, now, from tanks to tank- tops . . .' It was an addictive skill. By the end, watching Nationwide was like buying a jacket purely for its seams. But, when Nationwide was axed, the staff must have put a curse on its press tormentors, because Clive James has ended up as a prisoner in a Nationwide link factory, otherwise known as his nine-part series Fame In The 20th Century, which ends tonight on BBC1.

The show's chosen format has been for James to do a hello and a goodbye paragraph on a stool in a studio in front of a cricket- pitch sized pink neon sign reading: FAME. James has worn the same blue suit and remained in the same position for nine weeks, presumably in deliberate defiance of the Eighties rule for epic BBC factual series in which the presenter flew to five countries per episode, with a new suit in each. In this case, the famous TV face is mainly larynx only, speaking between clips of the century's celebrities. This makes the show's pivot the one-sentence verbal connection. In the eighth episode - charting the Seventies - the editing attempted a sequence about the Cold War. The pictures threw Olga Korbut against Alexander Solzhenitsyn. What could there ever be between them? What was between them was this: 'The Russians were turning out prodigies . . . the Russians turned out Solzhenitsyn altogether . . .' That neatness was merely creaky; some were creepy. In the Thirties chapter, asked to dart from entertainment celebrities to the rise of the dictators, James segued: 'Booked in for a long run under the title of the 1,000-year Reich, Hitler's mega-budget spectacular . . .' Jewish viewers, for starters, may have found this to have rather a broad way with history.

A linked difficulty was that every clip had to be connected back to the central thesis. 'But Henry Kissinger had one weakness - he simply loved fame,' said James. Well, a lot of Cambodians, at least, may question the idea that Kissinger's only weakness was that he was a closet stage-door Johnny. Similarly, the observation that 'Hitler had always been interested in fame' risks suggesting that there is no substantive difference between, on the one hand, the desire to create a master race, burn a whole religion off the earth and conquer Europe and, on the other, a wish to see your name in lights or on a screen.

So tenuous were some of the connections that you expected James, at any moment, to say: 'Cheddar is a kind of chalk, only yellow and harder and edible. And both of them are found on boards.' Nothing in James's journalism and books suggests that he really is as historically insensitive as the links quoted above suggest, so it must be concluded that the crassness was dictated by the format. This makes more urgent the question of why a chronological approach was adopted. According to reliable BBC sources, Fame In The 20th Century was originally packaged in thematic editions, but then recut to track the calendar.

If so, it is a mystifying decision. For you can see how some of James's genuinely strong ideas - like the one about the way in which Senator McCarthy used televised hearings to spread his anti-left fear, but then Ed Murrow turned the medium against McCarthy through a revelatory documentary - might have been explored more powerfully in a single chapter on celebrity and television or fame and politicians. The chronological approach denied time to any single idea, but also weight, because cultural trends have pasts and aftermaths. Developments passed over in sound-bites - politicians' media projection of their personality or the celebrity of terrorists, say - deserved spacious essays.

Fame was a subject made for television, not least because so many of its products were made by television. Indeed, Fame In The 20th Century must be the first nine-part BBC documentary series for which not a single frame of film needed to be shot. You can see why the purity of the concept appealed to James and his director, Beatrice Ballard: the last documentary subject which so absolutely demanded to be on television was probably Granada's Television, a history of the medium. However, beguiled by the archive, James and Ballard ended with something which was in no sense a documentary - it never investigated, never explained - but a newsreel history of showbusiness and politics. A relatively cheap series, its main costs being reproduction fees for film clips, Fame In The 20th Century is not a major failure, having doubled its audience from 4.8 million to 8.5 million, after initially drawing TV's shortest ratings straw: that of starting against Inspector Morse. It is, though, a waste of a huge and useful subject and the huge and useful James. The audience the series gained and sustained was the easy one tapped by nostalgia, a fact acknowledged when the BBC began to run trailers, immediately after the James show, for Sounds Of The Seventies, the rock music resume series.

A series about how celebrity does funny things to people, Fame In The 20th Century showed how celebrity has done funny things to Clive James. Throughout Fame In The 20th Century, I kept wondering what rapid punning summary the show might have given to the career of its presenter. I suppose it would be something like: 'Clive James came from Australia with a ream of dusty poems and a dream of shining for the poms. As a journalist, he was a wizard from Oz. But, on television, his programmes didn't dig down under deep enough. The man who had once thought of lines for great poems, now dreamed up lines for ordinary poms. He had won fame, but had he also lost something?'