When I heard that Clive James was posting video interviews on the Web, I immediately began begging him to let us have them for Slate. When I lived in Britain in the late 1980s, James was my favorite face on TV, an Australian-born raconteur who could wisecrack with equal aplomb about Formula One racing and Kafka. He turned his TV studio into a salon, making his guests—writers, directors, pop stars—forget they were being watched, and his viewers feel as if they were participating in his jolly conversations.
Only after getting to know James on the tube did I discover him as a writer. The first volume of his long-running autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, about his childhood in Australia, is the funniest book I have ever read, and the three subsequent volumes don't fall far from that mark. When I met James in London last year, I asked him why these minor masterpieces weren't better known in the United States, where none has sold and all are out of print. He answered that they were about failure and that Americans are mainly interested in reading stories of success.
It eventually became impossible for James to maintain with a straight face that he was not in fact doing fairly well as a literary critic, comedian, novelist, poet, songwriter, television star, and god knows what else. Those who have been following "Clive's Lives," Slate's 25-part excerpt from his extraordinary 20th-century intellectual history, Cultural Amnesia, will have some idea of his intellectual range. In this amazing book, which he worked on over 40 years, Clive does something else we are not used to in the United States. He mixes the comic with the serious—a mentality he examines directly through his study of fellow talk-show host Dick Cavett (which immediately follows his chapter on Albert Camus). "In America," James notes, "play and seriousness make uneasy bedfellows."
The diagnosis is accurate, and probably does explain why we Americans don't know James better. But perhaps the condition is not incurable. Serio-comedy is a hallmark of Slate's style as well. Whether we know it or not, one of the chief inspirations for our ongoing efforts to provoke thought and mirth at the same time is none other than this polymathic Australian extrovert. The kind of television coverage Troy Patterson writes in Slate grows almost directly out of the column James wrote for the London Observer beginning in the 1970s. The quick-witted cultural writing to which we aspire owes its tone to James' essays, first collected in The Metropolitan Critic.
With no prompting, little technical comprehension, and largely at his own expense, James is now pointing the way into Web video. Much like the founders of Slate a decade ago, he says he was simply curious about what his old medium might be like without all the blocking and heavy equipment. Also, with much of his classic work locked up in the BBC vaults, he wanted to find a younger audience. And this time, the salon really is his. In the library of his North London home, he chats with household names like Martin Amis, Cate Blanchett, Michael Frayn, and P.J. O'Rourke. But equally worthwhile are interviews with such friends as Peter Porter and Bruce Beresford, who are less-familiar faces on this side of the Atlantic.
Web video is in its infancy, but already some rules have emerged for James to break. On YouTube, programs are thought most effective at around three minutes, with a lot of activity and a punch line at the end. The Clive James Show runs a discursive half-hour with only mental action and a bit of drinking. No one has done anything like this on the Web. I suspect that no one else ever will.
New Clive James Interviews
| Michael Frayn,|
Archived Clive James Interviews
| Sir Jeremy Issacs,|