American TV -- through a British critics eyes
Any critic who describes "Dallas" as "every American soap opera you have ever seen all rolled into one and given an unlimited charge account at Neiman-Marcus" can't be all bad.
And Clive James, television critic for the London Observer, author of a new autobiography honestly titled "Unreliable Memoirs," (New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
By American standards, however, he might be considered by some as just a bit naughty. John Simon-like naughtiness, but less cutting and with more wit. Especially when he goes on to describe J. R. Ewing as wearing "an Astroturf haircut and a hatband composed of what appear to be crushed budgerigars [budgie birds]."
But enough about "Dallas" and more about Clive James, who has come visiting a colleague (me, that is) frankly in search of more buyers for his autobiography.
Australian-born (he left in 1961), James has been a TV critic in London for eight years, after serving as film critic on Granada television. He has been called "perhaps the brightest, most versatile, and most broadly informed literary journalist to have emerged in England during the '70s." Besides writing TV criticism, he does book reviews and essays on various sociological topics and appears on British TV talks shows regularly. "But TV criticism is what I basically do for a craft," he insists.
Despite his affection for "Dallas" he is very critical of most American TV. "In Britain there is simply more good TV to write about and it's that much easier to be a TV critic without going nuts. I think I'd go slightly nuts if I had to be writing about TV here."
I explain that sometimes we solve the problem by interviewing other critics. And often by writing about British television on programs such as "Masterpiece Theater."
He shakes his head sadly -- or is it wisely? "I wish I thought he were exporting our very best stuff to PBS. But I think sometimes good opportunities are missed."
Does he watch American TV in England. The last time I was in England I was amazed to find so much of the worst of American TV on British channels, including BBC.
"Yes, I do -- especially the junk. I like some of the junk. In fact I think that some of what you American critics call junk isn't junk at all. I watch 'Dallas' -- it is junk but it is fun. I watch 'The Rockford files' with the conviction that it's actually a very good program. I might watch 'Wonder Woman' once just to have fun with it. I watch 'Star Trek' religiously because it is sort of my hymn to my own childhood. i wish 'Star Trek' had been around when I was a kid. I have a lot of fun following Spock through the universe, kind of making fun of it, suppose. But it's quite possible to be cynical and cutting about a program at the same time being rather hooked on it. I think a lot of addiction to TV works on several levels."
Mr. James admits that he often gets hooked on "rotten" series -- like "Dynasty. I can't wait to see the next episode of 'Dynasty' because if you are going to write to see the next episode of that kind of program is a dream."
How about British television -- what does Clive James like best there?
"There are consistently good dramas, many of them ones which I don't think you ever get. That kind of stuff comes up all the time on British TV. I'm continually astonished by the amount of loving care and attention, really subtle social analysis that goes into that sort of program. It's above and beyond the call of duty. People would settle for less.
"British writers and directors like to work on TV. That's why there is no film industry. Pay is bad on both film and TV but things are easier to get done on TV so they go there first."
I mention that watching TV over a period of weeks in Britain I came to the conclusion that awful British TV is worse then awful American TV, just as good British TV is often better than good American TV.
"Yes," he agrees, just a bit reluctantly. "But awful British TV doesn't have the attraction of awful American TV. You can see how awful American TV might appeal to somebody. Awful British TV, you don't see how it can appeal to anybody. You wonder how it got on the air."
Do American critics tend to overestimate the quality of British TV?
"No. I know it is a common argument that we only export our masterpieces to 'Masterpiece Theater.' But I've got a feeling that we could export much better than we do. I think the general guality of good British programs is rather higher than you tend to estimate. The quality of bad British programs is rather lower than you tend to estimate.What's good about British TV is that the percentage of good programs is quite high."
In addition, what many British critics often forget is that we tend to export our worst while they seem to export mostly their best.
"But we also see some of your good things. I liked 'The Missiles of October' and i thought 'Blind Ambition' was a marvelous series. It was well received in Britain."
Mr. James is an admirer of Britain's "Fawlty Towers," "Monty Python," and other humorous shows which appeal to only a small portion of American audiences.
"There's a lot of American humor that wouldn't work in Britain either. But we never see it. No one would dream of importing 'Saturday Night Live.' We won't even import 'Sesame Street.' In fact, that's how 'The Muppet Show' started in Britain -- as a way of getting Kermit into a TV show.Everyone is under the impression that it's an American show even though it is actually taped in Britain.
"'Starsky and Hutch' is still running. We had a few objections to it being too violent, but there's an appetite for crashed-car series in Britain and 'Strasky' fills the bill. 'Kojak' was a big hit there. It was alive and well on British TV long after it had fallen out of the ratings here. It was Telly Savalas talking street talk -- the British like that slight element of incomprehensibility and had a lot of fun unscrambling what Telly was talking about."
Mr. James cannot understand why the BBC series "Life On Earth" has not already aired on American TV. "It is the biggest triumph of the past decade -- the best nature series even done, hosted by David Attenborough. It's all about life from single-cell structures up to man. It's the most magnificent thing BBC's ever done -- much better than Bronowski's 'Ascent of Man.' "Our whole communications system is haywire if 'Life on Earth" doesn't get shown here." (I checked with BBC and PBS and discovered that negotiations for airing "Life On Earth" on PBS in 1982 are going on right now, hindered only by the shortage of PBS funding.)
"England and America ought to be more plugged in to each other. This kind of thing is dependent upon a few executive decisions and the executives often aren't up to it. Maybe satellites will solve this by making it all one enormous TV system."
How does one go about plugging Britain and America more into one another?
"I don't know. I just think the culture gap is unfortunate. There really is a barrier of common language.
"We often think we're understanding each other and we're not. For one thing, there is the class thing. Britain might as well be Japan as far as class is concerned. I can see how Americans might not pick up the signals.
"Maybe the global electronic village is a bad idea. Maybe I'll give up being a TV critic next year. Maybe we all watch too much TV."
Might Clive James return to Australia and criticize TV there? He shakes his head vigorously.Might he emigrate to the US?
"I think it's wisest for me to stay in England. I come to America when I think I've got something to say to Americans. But I like America. I think one way or another I'm on my way here. It's a sea which Australians wish to sail. I think I'll do TV cirticism for two more years."
What will Clive James do instead of TV Criticism?
"Go to the opera a lot more."