In 1982 Clive James migrated to television full time. Before that he had led a charmed, if precarious, life in Grub Street, eventually landing a job as the Observer's TV critic. This, the fifth volume of his Unreliable Memoirs, is the story of what happened next.
In the first volume in the series, James warned us we were getting a novel disguised as an autobiography. But by the time you get to the fourth volume, North Face of Soho, fact seems to have elbowed fiction aside. That's no bad thing, for fiction just wouldn't have kept the pace - and it's something critics forever peddling the 'that-bighead-Clive James' line would do well to consider.
TV, in James's account, seems just like theatre on a larger scale: i.e. its natural state is impending disaster somehow turning out just fine. The smallest things take days of painstaking preparation. Linking shots, satellite interviews and Billy Connolly's suits are to this volume what Kogarah's spiders and snakes were to the first one. As before, stories that might be cruel on the first read are saved by generosity. Read his account of interviewing Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the 'gate-mouthed television evangelist' Jim Bakker, to see what what I'm talking about. For readers who knew James as a TV personality first, the pleasure of these anecdotes - and the ones about Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, Kate Winslett, Peter O'Toole and Princess Diana - can only be greater.
But that's not to say his sympathy is without limits. If there's one good thing to say for Hugh Hefner, it's that he pushes James's satire towards the heights of his 'Edward Pygge' parodies and classic essay, 'Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Masses'. A warning: if your wife is like mine, don't read chapter 22 (regarding Jason Donovan) aloud, unless you have a comfy sofa to sleep on.
If not as assured as Unreliable Memoirs or as wise as North Face of Soho, it's still a rewarding read, and more so for describing what happened where we could all see it. It'll be a sad day when the series' sixth and final volume is published.