Terence Blacker: Celebrity rots the brain - even Mr Fry's

The problem is that it is not difficult to seem intelligent on a medium that is essentially stupid
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The Independent Online

They will wonder, these historians of the future, at the chronic neediness (or was it laziness?) of millions of people who apparently lacked the confidence (or was it energy?) to dress, cook, raise children, garden, buy, sell or decorate a house without guidance from a famous stranger.

Perhaps, they will conclude, a certain generation of Britons were so busy juggling their post-millennial lives that they had forgotten many of the basic, everyday skills which their antecedents had taken for granted. They were lost, rudderless, hooked on advice available on TV and in books but rarely acting on it; merely having absorbed it into the outer part of the brain was enough.

This in-built sense of inferiority, which extends from the social to the aesthetic, has presented a significant career opportunity to a small number of public figures who have the right balance of memory, articulacy and exhibitionism to enable them to be that rare and coveted beast, the entertainment intellectual.

Not to be confused with intelligent people who occasionally appear, communicating their brilliance on TV, entertainment intellectuals have become famous for having a freakish coincidence of talents. They have, in the phrase invariably used in profiles of their number, "a brain the size of Kent" and yet are never happier than when slumming it among ordinary people on populist TV programmes.

This month, two well-known entertainment intellectuals are pushing product and, because they belong to different generations, it has been a revealing process. Clive James's new collection of essays, The Meaning of Recognition, circles around - wouldn't you just know it? - the concept of celebrity. These days people are no longer famous for their achievements, he revealed on Radio 4's Start the Week, but are often famous for being famous.

Rather more interesting than James's view of Madonna or Hollywood, is his own relationship to fame. A few decades ago, he was a skittish TV critic, a funny memoirist, an occasional poet and novelist. Then something wonderful and disastrous happened: Clive developed a TV image and fell in love with it.

He would appear on joke shows, chat shows, travel shows, end-of-year shows, specialising in a wry, head-scratching take on the world that was expressed with showy, vulgar verbal flourishes. He kept writing, contributing essays to the London Review of Books, nominating hilariously obscure works to the Times Literary Supplement's Books of the Year column.

There came a moment in the late 1990s when Clive James decided that seriousness mattered more than making jokes in front of the camera. With tremendous courage, he announced that he would be abjuring TV, and would henceforth devote himself to writing, scholarship and thought.

Such things can be left too late. On Start the Week, he was unable to resist excitedly interrupting other, rather more distinguished guests. Asked about his own book, he emphasised, rather sadly, how funny it was.

There is a lesson here for Stephen Fry, today's great entertainment intellectual, who is also undergoing a spasm of public seriousness with the publication of a book about writing poetry, called (with a careful nod in the direction of the bestseller list) The Ode Less Travelled. Being an entertainment intellectual can occasionally provide good TV - Fry's QI is that miraculous thing, a funny quiz show - but it involves a balancing act between intelligence and showbiz which rarely brings career satisfaction.

The problem is that it is not difficult to seem intelligent on a medium that is essentially stupid. Whereas a serious writer or academic will be held to account for sloppy thinking, the TV egghead can get away with virtually anything.

Celebrity rots the brain. There comes a moment when mass media intelligence, even when delivered with wit and charm, becomes an imitation of what it should be, an empty parody of itself. The tragedy is that, for all his braininess and acuity, the entertainment intellectual fails to see this himself.

So Fry can breezily dismiss most modern poetry with the witty phrase, "arse-dribble". He can, according to his latest interview, be "sniffy" about Andrew Motion. Casting his eyes further afield, he can announce that "people are intellectually lazy, morally lazy, ethically lazy". They need to escape from the "arid banality of popular culture".

Hang on a minute. What gives this man the authority to pronounce with the fat-bottomed authority of a public school headmaster not only on matters of poetry, but on the way that lower mortals behave, what we watch on TV and read in our newspapers? Has he not, with his comedies, sketch shows and silly-ass appearances on TV ads, not contributed in some small part to the aridity of our culture?

Fry, inevitably, has confessed to a fantasy in which he is leading the quiet life of a university don. Doubtless he agrees with his father's verdict that "Stephen spends a lot of time on things that are not worthy of him". But it is too late. There is a difference between showbiz braininess and real, quiet intelligence. It is useful for the rest of us at least not to get the two confused.