Heroic effort to find Elvis in Glasgow

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The Independent Online
ON Sunday evening the guest reviewers on Did You See? were a little unsure what Clive James's new series, Fame in the 20th Century, was meant to be about. Denis Healey said at least it showed Clive James could be involved in a programme without having bimbos walking about, but he felt there should be more to it than that. Cosmo Landesman asked why, if it was about fame, Clive James didn't offer some analysis of what fame meant, instead of just parading a lot of footage of famous people.

And it was at this point I realised I was possibly in a position to help them, because my memory began to stir and then suddenly raced back 10 years. To a time, in fact, when I had just gone freelance and was camping in the sound archives at Broadcasting House, putting together modest archive programmes for the little Monday morning slot on Radio 4.

I was plucked from there by a high-up at Television Centre who told me that, as usual, radio was ahead of television. Here were the sound archives doing admirable radio compilations; there were the television archives, doing nothing. We are sitting on all this wonderful stuff, he said, and not repeating or using of it. This is a television age, he said, near to tears, and yet we are depriving our viewers of the history of their chosen medium. We, the BBC, should be . . .

I'll spare you the self-flagellation. Suffice it to say he commissioned me to start work on a pilot scheme to put together as many shots of 20th-century highlights as I could find, and find a theme for it. A producer was allotted to me, and together we chose the theme of 'Heroes'. I think this was because the same faces kept turning up, shot adoringly by the camera, and we realised it should not be too hard to get enough stuff for a programme about the sort of people whom the 20th century hero-worshipped, from Lenin to James Dean.

The main snag was laying our hands on what we wanted. Early on, the producer mentioned a shot of Elvis Presley that she said was so good it must go in. She knew it was there, because she had borrowed it six months earlier for another programme. She sent for it. The archive people were sorry but they couldn't find it. They had lost it. They thought it might be in Glasgow. They thought it might not be in Glasgow. Either way, they couldn't find it. Sorry, but the archives were in a bit of a mess.

So we tried another tack. We tried looking at what they could find and seeing whether a theme emerged. We put together lots of shots of hero-figures (Churchill, Kennedy, Hendrix, Montgomery, de Gaulle, etc) and looked at them, and gradually a theme did emerge. It did for me, at least, because I was bemused by the stage props heroes used - I became convinced that serious world figures used gimmicks just as comedians or singers did.

Norman Wisdom, for instance, had an upturned cap. Jack Benny had a violin, Billy Connolly had a large shapeless beard, while Chaplin had a little moustache and a walking stick, and baggy trousers and a bowler. In the same way, Stalin had a big moustache and Monty had a beret, while Churchill, the Chaplin of politics prop-wise, had his homburg, his cigar, his V-sign and his brandy glass, not to mention his stand-by safari suit.

What I found fascinating was that quite different hero figures used exactly the same props. Montgomery made the beret into a military, rather right-wing symbol; Che Guevara did exactly the opposite. Churchill made the cigar patrician and Tory; Castro did quite the opposite, and so on. (I think I also wanted to include a 13th-century religious painting, to compare the use of berets today with medieval haloes then.)

Anyway, I wrote and recorded a script along these lines. There was a long silence. Then the high-up rang me and told me the bad news. He said they were having second thoughts about the project, and that in any case the producer had lost the master-tape and was now taking time off to have a bit of a nervous breakdown, which was an unusually circuitous way of saying they didn't think the script worked. (There was some good news as well; the missing Elvis Presley footage had turned up in Glasgow.) He was sorry that my time had been wasted, but felt sure that they would one day find a way of using all the wonderful television archives that the BBC had hidden away . . .

And that, I suspect, is what the Clive James series may really be about.