Fame in the 20th Century, by Clive James
It is inconceivable that the eight-hour BBC series, Clive James’s Fame in the 20th Century, first broadcast in this country last June on PBS and repeated a number of times since, would have been aired by a commercial TV network. ABC, CBS, and NBC long ago shelved most traditional documentaries in favor of “newsmagazine” shows like 60 Minutes. There are those who point to this fact as further proof of the total depravity of the commercial networks, just as there are those who believe everything they see on PBS, especially the documentaries that invariably win basketsful of awards yet attract only minuscule audiences more interested in PC than TV. Though Fame in the 20th Century is not quite like that, it is close enough to remind the viewer of how the world looks through the taxpayer-subsidized cameras of the Public Broadcasting System.
A greatly expanded version of the script of Fame in the 20th Century is now available in book form. Clive James, the author, is a journalist of a sort unknown in this country: an intellectual and writer (mainly of light verse, failed novels, TV reviews, and, from time to time, serious literary criticism) who moonlights as the host of popular BBC shows, among them The Clive James Great American Beauty Pageant and Clive James Finally Meets Frank Sinatra. The premise of his latest undertaking is that “20th-century fame” is an insidious American invention which is slowly strangling the rest of the world.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.