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Saturday 4 October 1997
Issue 863

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'I am a romantic egomaniac'


Life & Times

He may speak eight languages and be the master of ridicule, but Clive James tells Jan Moir that he is a fool about women

CLIVE JAMES is at the far end of the office, stuffing his face with cakes. Between sugary mouthfuls, his twangy, unmistakable voice floats over the desks. "Just wheel her in when she gets here," he instructs one of his staff, unaware that any second now, my mighty castors are about to trundle right across his toes.

"Oh," he says, executing a half-turn and realising his mistake. "Ahhh. Would you like a doughnut?"

Although his handshake is as damp and soft as an old nappy, his disposition is peremptory, verging on the bossy. He leads the way as we march in single file to a more private room, where he eschews the chummy comforts offered by a pink sofa and, instead, bustles himself into the power chair behind a desk.

"You don't have much time," he says, his lips peeling into one of those thin, curly smirks, his fingers drumming on a notepad. "We are very busy here."

We are in the west London offices of Watchmaker Productions, the company James formed in 1995 to make his own television programmes and produce new talent. "I sometimes get overruled, but nothing happens here that I don't approve of," he says. His latest series, Clive James on TV, takes a typically wry, sly look at television genres, such as this week's theme of quizzes and game shows.

"I have always wanted to do a TV show that felt like the TV column I used to write for the Observer newspaper," he says briskly.

James has always been a polymath - critic, journalist, poet, wit, author, intellectual, linguist - but the success of his television career continues to surprise. Physically, he has never been a light-entertainment natural, with his burly chest, short legs and pea-sized eyes which disappear behind pouches of flesh each time he smiles. When he first made the Saturday Night Clive series in the early Eighties, the BBC make-up department tactfully suggested some follicle enhancement. "But I was too disorganised," he recalls. "If they had ordered me a wig, I would have lost it."

So one can only admire the efforts he has made to be a star; bald, proud and armed to his ravaged teeth with mordant banter and superbly crafted scripts. Over the years, he has peppered the prime-time schedules with Clive chat shows, Clive travelogues and Clive one-off specials. Off-screen, he has written four novels, three volumes of autobiography and 19 other books, encompassing critical essays, collections of journalism and poetry anthologies.

He is condemned in some quarters for wasting his highbrow intellect on low-brow, small-screen pursuits but he sees no reason to stop serving up the hugely popular Jamesian mixed grill: a piping-hot dish of egghead, couch potato and big ham.

"I love being on television," he says. "I have a personality failing which can only be solved by exposing myself to millions of people at a time."

Still, there are moments in the new series when our hero - marooned on a futuristic set, togged out in a poplin shirt - looks uncomfortably like the lone raver who has failed to notice that the party is over and the milk bottles are on the doorstep. For how much longer, I wonder, can he continue sniggering at Japanese game shows, popping his pea-eyes goatishly at glamorous gal guests, and still expect to maintain a shred of dignity?

"Bob Monkhouse is 67," he says. "That's 10 years older than I am, and he still looks like my son. I can't work that trick, but I think it should be possible to age gracefully on TV. I want to go on devising a role on screen for an older and older and older man, until eventually I'll be sitting there in a wheelchair."

Does he really mean that?

"Yes, I do," he says. "I started off looking like a wreck, and that's the way I'll end up. Provided the role you play on TV does not depend on youth culture - and mine never has - you can go on indefinitely. I suppose the day will come when I'll retire and slip quietly from the screen without anyone noticing but, frankly, I rather hope that won't happen."

And what does that say about him?

"That I am a poor, sad, old bastard," he says. As he laughs, his eyes bob and then drown, engulfed once more in their rolling waves of skin.

Clive James has always served himself well by declaring his flaws so boldly. Perhaps it is the only recourse open to someone whose broadcasting career has largely been founded on poking fun at others.

Early on in Unreliable Memoirs, the first volume of his autobiography, he admits that "one of the reasons why I grew up feeling the need to cause laughter was perpetual fear of being its unwitting object". This anxiety is hardly original among those practising the comedic arts, but James appears to have taken it to neurotic extremes, developing the frantic habit of using irony as armour in every facet of his life.

Growing up an only child in a modest suburb of Sydney, he was shattered by the death of his serviceman father, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese in the fall of Singapore and freed three years later, only to die in an air crash on his way home. Even though James romps through the book making jokes about his boyish mishaps - the loss of a football team place because of his ill-fitting kit: "I had to run some distance before my boots started to move" - the emotional crater left by his father's death is obvious. Billed on the flyleaf as the kind of rib-tickler that should not be perused in public, Unreliable Memoirs is, in fact, one of the saddest books I have read.

"It is, it is. I know what you mean. The last time I looked at it, I realised it was much sadder than I thought. The solitude comes out of it like a cry," says James. "My father's death was the pivotal moment of my life, sure. And in one way or another, I will be writing about it until the day I die. I have never stopped grieving, but it has made me what I am, whatever that is."

In what way?

"Auden once said that every child deserves as much neurosis as it can stand, and I certainly did. It made me want to make mud pies."

Mud pies?

"It made me . . . not content with myself. It made me want to get out there, to try to redress the balance."

It is easy to see why his intriguing friendship with the late Diana, Princess of Wales initially flourished, even if you set aside the fact that James has always been an ardent royalist and awesomely starstruck - particularly if the star happens to sparkle with glamour and beauty.

After her separation, but before her divorce, Diana and Clive lunched together on a semi-regular basis, a companionship cemented, he recently revealed, by a mutual wound. In an arrestingly emotional requiem published in the New Yorker on September 15, James disclosed that she once told him of her childhood anguish over her parents' separation and how she somehow knew that something similar had happened to him. He told her of his bereavement and the "corrosive guilt" he felt on being the helpless witness of his mother's distress. At that point, he wrote, "Diana touched my wrist, and that was it: we were both six years old. It was no trick."

"It seems indelicate to suggest to him that she could have read about the tragedy in his autobiography, as millions of others did. Elsewhere in the article, he gushes fulsomely about his love for her, describes himself as a "romantic egomaniac" and recalls what she looked like the first time they met. "She wasn't just beautiful. She was like the sun coming up: coming up giggling."

He also mentions that he has never spoken of their platonic liaison publicly before, wary - with good cause - of appearing ridiculous. How does he feel about it now?

"Nothing was ridiculous that week. Nothing mattered. It was holy week, it was time out of time. Previously, I thought the less I said about the Princess of Wales, the better. I spoke out then because I thought it was the right time. For four difficult days, it gave me something to do. And now I have nothing else to add. I don't want to add one single word while I am alive," he says.

I want to ask him if this means that he is planning to publish something posthumously, but the sudden spring of tears in his eyes dams that particular line of inquiry. Instead, I ask whether he really is a "romantic egomaniac" - and what exactly he means by the phrase.

"I am, and that's no secret," he says, perking up instantly. "It means that I will go to my grave being an old fool in the way that I was a young fool. I have always felt that way about women."

What way?

"Just . . . grateful," he says, uncoiling another smirk.

While it is certainly true that female guests on his shows can expect some extravagantly emollient treatment - he once made pointedly critical remarks about Jane Fonda in a newspaper, then fawned all over her on television - he denies that he is, to put it coarsely, a sucker for a pretty face.

"Hah! I put it beyond that. I think there is more to a pretty face than is sometimes thought. Pretty faces are usually pretty because there is intelligence behind them. And I can think of plenty of allegedly pretty faces that I don't find pretty for that reason. They are just faces," he says, shrugging.

He also admits that he has "not escaped many of the traps, failings and stupidities that affect most men" but has "dealt with them in advance".

What on earth does he mean?

"That I have kept my life together, strangely enough, in ways that other men have found difficult."

I'm still baffled.

"I don't want to go into details of my private life," he says, and thereby rests his mysterious case.

He has been married for 28 years to Prudence, a professor of modern languages, and has two daughters, Claerwen and Lucinda. But he never discusses his family in newspapers, believing that to do so would be giving hostages to fortune. "I have to consider their wishes, and their wishes are not to be involved," he says.

The James family home is in Cambridge, where he spends his weekends, and he has a London flat where he can be found most weekdays; writing, reading or studying one of the eight languages in which he is proficient. He is always working, working, working at a thunderous pace.

"I can see the doors closing ahead of me and there is still so much I want to do. I want to learn Arabic. I haven't done enough Japanese. I need to write a new novel. I want to live to be 200, but that's egomania, really," he says, sighing.

Many years ago, when he was studying for his doctorate at Cambridge, he realised that one of his problems was that he had never been able to get enough of anything. The bereaved child's sharpened hunger for experience has not left him; even now, he cannot put the brakes on his pell-mell pursuit of excellence.

Only in the past few years has he finally allowed himself a hobby: a surprising passion for South American ballroom dancing, which he practises every Friday night.

It is rather poignant to think of him steering a succession of partners round a dance floor every week. And who could fail to wish him well, the crazy old flirt, as he hurtles on through the mad tango of his life?

  • Clive James on TV continues on ITV, October 2, at 8.30pm

    20 September 1997: I wish I'd never met her
    14 September 1996: Obnoxious?Me?

  • Next report: When men were men, and knew it

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