The other Clive

INTERVIEW: CLIVE JAMES
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Clive James is a biter bit. As an ex-TV critic, he walks around on screen with a metaphorical "kick me" sign on his back, and his former colleagues certainly haven't been slow to take aim at it.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the substantial ratings his programmes have garnered over the years, James has sometimes found it hard to win over the snootier reviewers. "Critics kindly say that I'm wasting my talent," he sighs. "My only answer is that I never used to hear much about this talent before I started wasting it. It's very kind of them to suggest that I have these infinite reserves of know-how and potential that I've immolated on the altar of filthy lucre," he adds with a characteristic flourish.

"It's hard when I've made an effort and found it being dismissed," James continues, "but then I've done a lot of that myself in the past. Now I'm quite used to it and hard to hurt. I do not at any time of the day blame myself for doing less than what's in me."

With his famous bald dome and eyes gleaming in equal measure, James matches the central London hotel room we meet in: urbane, classy, and sophisticated. That hasn't stopped him being accused of, in the current buzzword, "dumbing down" for TV. Obviously well-practised, he has an eloquent response at the ready. "I try to keep my work intelligible, but that doesn't mean I dumb it down. I work on the principle that you should never overestimate what people know, but never underestimate how bright they are. I'm just trying to express my opinions in a way that everybody can understand."

The other charge that has been levelled at James is that he takes cheap shots. His mocking of Japanese entertainment programmes has attracted particular criticism. "I've taken a lot of stick for those Japanese game- shows," he admits. "Journalists didn't hesitate to call me racist. But there was only a strong reaction in the media. The public thought it was hilarious."

James also rebuts suggestions that his questioning of guests can tend towards the simplistic. "I hate saying, `How do you feel?' - when I was a TV critic, I was scathing about those type of questions - but they're necessary. What you have to do is convince the interviewee that just because it's a dumb question doesn't mean you have to give a dumb answer."

Ultimately, James is able to fend off all these critical barbs with the trusty shield of public approval. "No matter how much you get attacked in the press, what really counts is ordinary people coming up to you in the street and discussing a show you've done. They let you know very fast if they don't appreciate you. After all, they've got the most powerful weapon in the world: the remote control. It's a gun, and it's aimed at my head."

James is the first to concede that when he switched from writing about TV to appearing on it, he had a lot to learn. "When I began interviewing on television, I made every possible mistake. The worst is not to listen to an answer because you're thinking of the next question. When I ask, `How did you get on with your mother?', and the guest replies, `Actually I set fire to her and buried her under the ground,' the next question should not be, `Then I suppose you went to college?'"

He believes that charm rather than confrontation is the best way to elicit revelations. Citing with admiration the crafty manner in which David Frost comprehensively exposed Richard Nixon without asking a single adversarial question, James says he is not a student of the Clive Anderson School of In-Your-Face Interviewing. "Clive is very clever," James reckons, "but I couldn't do what he does. I'm quite content to be The Other Clive. I'm not there to score points. I like my guests to score points. For the host to score points limits the genre. The adversarial technique doesn't necessarily work. It makes the interviewer look good, but you don't always get a result. My technique is so softly-softly it's almost invisible."

But it pays off. "Sometimes I've got a nifty question up my sleeve designed to spring the guest into an area he's vowed not to talk about. I'm not there for my pretty face or my baby-blue eyes. I'm there for my words. I'm very proud of my interview with Katharine Hepburn, for instance. Beforehand, I'd been told, `She's not going to talk about Spencer Tracy or Howard Hughes'. So I asked her, `Why did Spencer Tracy drink?' and she was off. Then I said, `Some people think that falling in love with you is the only sane thing Howard Hughes ever did,' and she told me the big secret - that Hughes was deaf and felt safe with her. You can't say `Tell me about your relationship with Howard Hughes', because she'll tell you to go fly a kite."

James uses this technique to good effect in his forthcoming interview with Mel Gibson, who emerges as a pretty smart cookie. "He's unusual because actors are not normally balanced people," James says. "I like the stars where you can see there's a mind there. In a way, this is the first movie Mel Gibson has ever been in. In all the others, he's pretending to be someone else."

In this and other programmes, notably his weekly Clive James Show, he trades in the currency of celebrity - something he reckons we'll never tire of. "I can't go off and make a documentary about a garbage-collector. You make things about celebs because that's what people want to watch. It's a natural consequence of democracy. When everybody achieves equal rights, the differences become more instead of less important. Anyone outstanding becomes of interest. What doctors and nurses do is obviously far more important, but doctors and nurses want to watch celebs, too. You can't beat that one."

In another upcoming documentary - it feels like a Clive James season on ITV at the moment - he raises a quizzical eyebrow at Las Vegas. "I loved filming there, but I didn't love the city. It's insanity solidified. In the film, we find out why the average visitor is leaving behind $588 they didn't intend to spend - and that's happening every two seconds. Even the air conditioning there is rigged to make you gamble - don't ask me how."

To some, James may appear smart-alec or clever-clever. But there is no denying his canniness. And it is hard not to forgive someone who laughs easily at himself. James says he is is often being stopped in the street by people who tell him: "I liked that programme, Mr Anderson."

`The Clive James Show' is on tomorrow at 10.20pm on ITV

`Clive James - Postcard from Las Vegas' is on 8 Apr at 10.40pm on ITV

`Clive James Meets Mel Gibson' is on 17 Apr at 9pm on ITV

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