Clive James has a special place in my heart, and in the heart of every one of my flat mates, who at one stage or another during my ten-hour viewing marathon of the recently released Complete Collection exclaimed the same sentence: “Oh, I used to watch him with my parents when I was little.”
The pudgy, deadpan Australian – a precursor to today’s Louis Theroux – charms his way across continents, lifestyles and sexy foils, all the while retaining an 80s sense of wonder at the ever-expanding world the baby boomers were born into, and have tried to overrun. And after watching ten straight hours of his commentary on everything from Japan to the Playboy Mansion, I have an internal monologue in his tone of voice that I seem unable to snap myself out of.
A lot of enjoyment found in the series comes from James’ attitude. Whether it be approaching wild elephants on safari, challenging the motivations of charity-giving squillionaires in Dallas, learning to not only drive a car but race it in a celebrity grand prix in Adelaide or – my highlight – taking part in Takeshi’s Castle, a Japanese adventure game show, each journey seems to emerge as a result of him saying: “Why not?”
This question has traced the trajectory of most of his critical career, as he has written on the subject of art, poetry and badly made-for-television movies. If it’s something the public is going to want to watch and take part in, why not tag along, commentating with a critical eye? This conceit for adventure does seem to overshoot at times, as in each episode at one stage or another you will invariably find him with nearly no kit on, but I do admire his willingness to take on whatever challenges his subjects throw at him.
This being an 80s television show, and with James having made it when he was already approaching middle age, there are moments of generational cringe that are more obvious now my age has moved into double digits. It’s no more obvious than in the episode where he is welcomed into the Playboy mansion, where – entering the pool for a swim – he voiceovers about his company’s extreme good looks before challenging them, in a patronising tone, about their ‘betrayal of feminism’. While this makes me want to punch a cushion, James has enough saving graces through his adventurous spirit to be tolerated in his moments of thoughtlessness.
These moments that make you cringe are offset by the number of times he exposes himself to humiliation at the hands of his own un-worldliness, an old-world bearing that many were only beginning to emerge from, or were being allowed to emerge from, as a result of cheaper travel options in the 70s and 80s.
I can’t say enough about the importance of Clive James in the shaping of middle-class Australian identity at a time when confusion and cringe reigned in our cultural landscape. Though hopefully times have changed, and hopefully we have moved on somewhat in the past 25 years, this collection is a welcome trip into our recent past.
The Clive James Collection
UK, 1980s, 442 mins (three-disc set)
Out now on DVD