Samsung Rising
Oathbringer. Book 3 of the Stormlight Archive

Fame in the 20th Century

Clive James was old when I was young. A man who smoked so many cigarettes per day you would question whether he trusted any air he could not see. Even when seated he looked stooped. A damp sack of flour with an Australian accent.

Sometimes the sack of flour wore a tuxedo jacket and sometimes it wore a suit. Tuxedo or suit the cut never looked right on TV. He had the body shape of a Bolshevik leader. Take away the impish smile and he looked like he would have had a good chance to be elected to the chairmanship of the Soviet Union after Lenin dropped dead.

But he had the smile and that look, and it made him a better broadcaster.

My plan to do something today that did not involve reading a book, anything at all, hit a snag as the outer edge of Storm Ellen battered us with rain showers and blanketed us with fog. The weather service reliably informs me that disruptive and potentially damaging winds are inbound as the storm makes landfall. Oh goody.

Looking for a Plan B that did not involve my buttocks meeting the reading chair once again, I noticed a Clive James book in the unread pile and remembered that I saw one episode of James’s “Fame in the 20th Century” back in the 90s and never completed the series. So today was the day I did that. Broadcast in 1993 and covering 250 people across the twentieth century James grapples with fame and the rise of the celebrity. His quips are fast, his barbs are deep, and his analysis is sharp.

He points out that early in the 1900s people were famous and the advent of mass media did nothing to increase their fame. Then fame and celebrity became a profession and elevated those which it probably should not have. You may be disgusted with reality television or it may be a guilty pleasure, but it is not anything new. Marie Curie was famous, but she was not a reality star. Elizabeth Taylor was famous, and she most certainly was.

Some of the film clips here are fascinating and well curated. The licensing requirements alone prevents a rerelease. The conclusion of the series is glum but has a ring of truth. For the people to whom fame is not a profession, those regular people who James refers to as “amateur actors”, fame is like an Aztec human sacrifice. Paraded and fêted for a while but it ends with the crowd cutting the subject’s heart out. Those who are famous are there for our use and the most they can hope for is that we will use them well.

Watching the series, I realised that I liked Clive James because he had an approachable intellect. His body of knowledge was deep and wide, and his brain seemed to operate faster than everyone else’s but he took the time to have a conversation with his audience. A conversation of equals. I hope at the end of his life he felt that his audience had used him well.