Friday, September 26, 2008

The Clive James Version

I learned something today. It's not a pleasant something, and it has perturbed me. For a sentence to be funny, it actually matters who wrote it.

I'll explain this in a bit. The new Standpoint magazine is out, and Nick is doing his tv critic thing. He does all right up to a point - that point being the word 'because' in the fourth paragraph from the end. I think he's right about how good Clive James used to be.

But James had no interest in learning about scheduling and programme-making. He spent his week refining his one-liners - of Arnold Schwarzenegger, "he looks like a brown condom full of walnuts"; of Murray Walker, "in his quieter moments, it sounds like his trousers are on fire" - rather than understanding the basics of the television industry. Young journalists all over London imitated his style in vain attempts to be as clever and successful as him.

I'll quibble with the "all over London" bit. Oi be a pravincal, oi not be up to roiting an clevar stuff like that. The only stoiles we knew were the ones you climbed over. Obviously I should have done that in Scottish, but West Country Pirate is how it came out. Speaking of Scottish, hardly are those words out, etc, I just remembered Stanley Eveling (woeful Wikipedia entry) who wrote the tv column for the Scotsman. But he wasn't in London so the imitation game didn't include him.[1] Christ, I wanted to be Clive James too, which may explain the gratuitous references to poetry and silly puns on book titles.

Arnie wasn't as famous then as he is now. When James wrote that he was just an iron-pumper with cheekbones and rudimentary English. So far, nothing to distinguish him fro Jean-Claude van Damme or Steven Seagal. The point of James's writing wasn't that it referred to universally familiar stuff, but that it stood up as writing. I like Wodehouse, but I've never stayed in a crumbling pile, I don't have a manservant or a platoon of aunts.

Anyway, here's the thing:

The futures predicted by more level-headed commentators vary from the apocalyptic to merely horrendous.

If James had written that, it would have been funny, but I don't think Nick does intentional bathos. One of the symptoms of the transformation into Melanie Phillips is the belief that apocalyptic predictions are level-headed (unless they involve global warming). Up to a point, Nick has managed a reasonable essay. It's an F as far as television reviewing goes; he seems to believe that writing about the medium in the abstract will do. This piece should be kept in evidence should Nick Cohen ever feel the need to sneer at media studies courses.

The BBC has the licence fee, but a subsidy from the taxpayer is not necessarily a blessing. It cannot produce dramas as good as HBO's The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or The Wire because it feels it must appeal to everyone in the country.

It's true that the BBC "must appeal to everyone in the country." Never mind the "feels" bit: everyone pays the licence fee and they're entitled to something for it. However, nowhere does it say that every BBC programme has to appeal to everyone. There is also more to the BBC and broadcasting than drama. The Beeb does comedy well - the Telegraph seems to believe that there is a "comedy 'brain-drain'": David Walliams "is too busy conquering the United States" to write for Ronnie Corbett. And it has no real rivals for natural history and factual programmes. Raymond Chandler once said something like, "if the plot gets sticky, have a guy walk through the door with a gat." It's much easier to lever a hood with a firearm into a US based story than one set here, and that saves a lot of American tv when the British equivalent has to soldier on with a lot of shouting instead.

Perhaps this was a resignation letter. He seems to conclude that television and newspapers (and presumably magazines, especially those that publish their entire contents online) are things of the past and tomorrow internets will cover the world. Surely not.

Elsewhere, David Aaronovitch writes for Prospect. Sadly, he's behind a subscription wall (until next month - this is the way to do online content and make money), but he's slagging off Edward Skidelsky, so good for him. I tried the Skidelshy essay, but I've got better things to do. There must be some 'Star Trek' episodes on YouTube I haven't seen recently for instance.

More or less OT, Eric Martin of Obsidian Wings considers Christopher Hitchens' review of Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention. "... Hitchens is pretty near insufferable in this piece - still brandishing the same haughty sense of moral superiority by dint of his support for Bush's invasion of Iraq that many liberal hawks have since abandoned, or at least had the decency to soft pedal."

[1] I've only seen one of Eveling's plays. It was pretty good, even if I can't remember its name. He mocked Pinter, though. Bastard.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My God - this from the Standpoint website, trailing a piece by its editor:

October 2008
Starbucks is the symbol of American capitalism, but it's principle product was first brought to the West by an Islamic empire

ugh. And highlights include an already outdated piece on the Kosovo/Ossettia comparison, and a piece in which Sarah Palin is called 'underrated'. i wonder if it was written after the interview with Katie Couric, which has resulted in the McCain team's new strategy of suggesting that Palin is hopeless...

on Nick - invoking Clive James to bemoan how bad TV writing is in 2008 is not the best idea when you are a TV reviewer in 2008. He says:

It cannot produce dramas as good as HBO's The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or The Wire because it feels it must appeal to everyone in the country.

What about Bleak House?

the internet vastly increases the possibility for people to turn off the television [...]. Cheeringly, the internet encourages people to cooperate and give their time and information free of charge. But they do it on specialist subjects that interest them - Formula 1, maybe

And which TV company has just secured the rights to F1?

9/26/2008 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually paid money in exchange for a copy of Prospect today, on the basis of a tipoff from AW comments. It felt very weird to do so. The Aaro essay is actually pretty good. But I left it at work and I can't remember enough to write about it, so it will have to wait till Monday.

9/26/2008 10:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apropos of nothing here's a little Mad Mel story that might cheer you up. I was going through some old copies of the magazine I work for and came across this story. The Guardian sent Mel to Newcastle to cover a social work strike (late 70s). So Mel has to go round knocking on doors like a good cub reporter to find out the impact. At one door she gets talking to the mother, when a boy shouts from the upstairs window "don't let her in mum." The lad's visceral dislike of Mel has most probably stood him in good stead for the rest of his life.

9/29/2008 10:45:00 AM  

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