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Clive James dead: Writer, broadcaster and TV critic dies at 80

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Clive James died at his home in Cambridge on Sunday almost 10 years after his first terminal diagnosis

  •  Australian-born TV host, writer, critic and all-around wit, Clive James dies at 80
  • Clive James, writer, critic and broadcaster, 1939-2019

Clive-James

The erudite and richly comedic commentaries of Clive James, the Australian writer and critic who has died aged 80, helped define the cultural changes that shaped Britain from the 1960s onwards.

Ailing from chronic illnesses in his final years, Mr. James couldn’t contain his capacity for wry self-mockery even as he speculated over whether it would be leukemia, kidney disease or emphysema that would cause him to “drop from the twig.”

He died Nov. 24 at his home in Cambridge, England, at age 80. His literary agency, United Agents, announced his death, saying in a statement that Mr. James “died almost 10 years after his first terminal diagnosis, and one month after he laid down his pen for the last time.”

Who is Clive James?

James was a pioneer in his even-handed treatment of traditional high culture and its emergent popular counterpart, and observed the interaction between the two realms with a wry intelligence.

“I saw the world simultaneously as full of all this vulgar junk, and all this wonderful, sophisticated stuff, and I still do,” he told an interviewer in 2012. Few writers described that occasionally jarring juxtaposition with greater flair.

Although chiefly known for television, James’s talents first as a critic for The Observer and then as an entertainer in his own right were wide-ranging and his brief eclectic. He was a poet, revelling in his use of unfashionable forms such as rhyming couplets, a songwriter, and a successful autobiographer, having written five volumes of best-selling and acclaimed memoirs.

His own TV programmes of the 1980s, from ITV’s Clive James on Television to the BBC’s Saturday Night Clive, were at the same time affectionate towards — and gently satirical of — the medium that made him famous. His 1993 BBC series Fame in the 20th Century (“I never wrote anything better in any medium,” he said of it) had less traction with a public that was already responding to cruder forms of evening entertainment. He stopped appearing on television in 2000, concentrating on his writing and running a praised website.

Born Vivian Leopold James in Sydney on October 7 1939, he was brought up by his mother following the death of his father in an air crash en route home from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, an event James later described as “defining”. He studied English literature at Sydney University and moved to England in 1962, winning a place to read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

He became a member, and later president, of the Cambridge Footlights theatre group and acquired a reputation as a formidable literary critic with a devastating turn of phrase. He memorably described the actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger as a “brown condom stuffed with walnuts” and the newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell as “a ton and a half of half-cured ham wrapped in a white tuxedo, his pan-scrubber eyebrows dripping condescension like spoiled lard”.

James was at his best when he addressed subjects of popular interest with improbable gravity: his article for The New Yorker on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was a shrewd and generous tribute to a woman who had become a friend. He was married to the academic Prudence “Prue” Shaw, from whom he became semi-estranged following the disclosure of his long affair with a model, Leanne Edelsten, and leaves two daughters, Claerwen and Lucinda.

Having been an 80-a-day smoker he suffered from ill health in the final years of his life — leukaemia, kidney problems and emphysema — and described himself in a BBC interview in 2012 as “a man who is approaching his terminus”. Always ambivalent about his own fame, he said he was “amazed and appalled” when his life and work were chosen as the specialist subject of a Mastermind contestant. “I felt like a public building,” he said.

Asked to describe the single most valuable thing that he brought to television, he replied simply: “Words.”

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