Clive James was diagnosed with leukaemia, kidney failure and lung disease almost 10 years ago and endured his “ever-multiplying illnesses with patience and good humour". He kept writing and making poetry, his agent United Artists said in a statement.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on November 28, 2019

Clive James who hosted popular TV shows in the UK for two decades, wrote several novels and books of poetry and was famous for his dry one-line quips, has died aged 80.

The host of the UK’s The Clive James Show, who was known for his dry humour and insightful critique, died at his home in Cambridge, UK, on Sunday according to a statement from United Agents.

James was diagnosed with leukaemia, kidney failure and lung disease almost 10 years ago and endured his “ever-multiplying illnesses with patience and good humour”. He kept writing and making poetry until the end.

Clive James

James penned his own obituary and published it on his website, telling journalists it would be “cheaper than anything most newspapers are likely to have in the freezer”.

“I will keep updating it until they carry me to the slab, during which journey I will try to give details of my final medication.”

In his own obituary, James writes that “after a long and ultimately unsuccessful operation to remove a cancer on his cheek in February 2019, which left him frail and almost blind, Clive James spent the spring and summer of 2019 writing and editing an autobiographical anthology called The Fire of Joy, a raid on ‘the treasure-house of his mind’: a collection of the poems that first awoke in him his love of poetry and that were lodged forever in his memory. The book is furnished with his notes on each poem and on the capacity of a well-furnished mind to endure and transcend, to escape the confines of the body. The Fire of Joy was finished a month before his death, and will be published in 2020.”

James was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1939 and christened Vivian Leopold James (he changed his name to Clive at age eight after being bullied at school). He went to Sydney University and sailed for England in late 1961, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. He was a polymath.

James was the television critic for The Observer newspaper for a decade from 1972, with some of his best work published in books Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box. There was a compendium On Television.

James on Arnold Schwarzenegger: “He has a body like a condom full of walnuts.”

James on Marilyn Monroe: “As far as talent goes, Marilyn Monroe was so minimally gifted as to be almost unemployable, and anyone who holds to the opinion that she was a great natural comic identifies himself immediately as a dunce.”

James on Americans: “Why do we have America? It’s the place we keep all the Americans in.”

James on Beyoncé at Glastonbury: “Beyoncé and pathos are strangers. Amy Winehouse and pathos are flatmates, and you should see the kitchen.”

His face, dry wit, sharp observations of himself and culture saw him regularly make guest appearances on TV shows. He occasionally co-presented pop music show So It Goes before being given his own show Clive James on Television, in which he showcased unusual and/or amusing television programs from around the world, notably the Japanese TV show Endurance. He then hosted a similarly formatted program Saturday Night Clive (1988–1990) which became Saturday Night Clive on Sunday and then Sunday Night Clive in its third and final series. He then pioneered the “’Postcard’ format of travel TV shows with the series Clive James in …”. His final major TV event was the 1993 series Fame in the Twentieth Century, which was broadcast in the UK, US and Australia.

“Popular culture was my observation point. I had a natural affinity to it. Nothing was more natural to me in the world than to say what I thought. It was a big advantage to come from a country where saying what you think is something you do all the time,” he said in an interview.

All the while James extensively wrote literary criticism for newspapers, magazines and periodicals in the UK, US and Australia. His first collection of literary criticism was published in 1974 and his work was continually published until June 2009.

James also wrote four novels, co-collaborated with singer Pete Atkin, where James wrote the songs, and released a number of albums and toured. He was a regular contributor to the BBC Radio 4 program A Point Of View from 2007 to 2009.

After his terminal diagnosis, he began writing poetry. James first revealed the news of his illness in May 2011, when he had already been ill for 15 months.

The next year he declared: “I am a man who is approaching his terminus”. He continued to write and broadcast until almost the end.

His observations of other people was revered. Here is a selection, thanks to the BBC.

On Barbara Cartland: “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.” – Glued to the Box

On Philip Larkin: “(Larkin) himself is well aware that there are happier ways of viewing life. It’s just that he is incapable of sharing them, except for fleeting moments – and the fleeting moments do not accumulate, whereas the times in between them do.” – At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979

On Brezhnev – A Short Biography: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.” – From the Land of Shadows, 1982

Clive james

“If Brideshead Revisited is not a great book, it’s so like a great book that many of us, at least while reading it, find it hard to tell the difference.” – Glued to the Box

“As for David Attenborough’s Life On Earth, it was obvious from the first episode that thousands of new zoologists would all be conceived at once, like a population bulge. I watched enthralled, distracted only by envy of my own children, for whom knowledge was being brought to alive in a way that never happened for my generation or indeed any previous generation in all of history.” – The Crystal Bucket

“In The Bob Hope Golf Classic the participation of President Gerald Ford was more than enough to remind you that the nuclear button was at one stage at the disposal of a man who might have either pressed it by mistake or else pressed it deliberately in order to obtain room service.” – Glued to the Box

On The Lord of the Rings: “I still haven’t forgiven CS Lewis for going on all those long walks with JRR Tolkien and failing to strangle him, thus to save us from hundreds of pages dripping with the wizardly wisdom of Gandalf and from the kind of movie in which Orlando Bloom defiantly flexes his delicate jaw at thousands of computer-generated orcs. In fact it would have been ever better if CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien could have strangled each other, so that we could also have been saved from the Chronicles of Narnia.” – BBC Radio 4: A Point of View

“Spielberg had done his best with Schindler’s List, but his best left some of us wondering just how useful a contribution it was, to make a movie about how some of the Jews had survived, when the real story was about all the Jews who hadn’t.” – BBC Radio 4: A Point of View

On a South Bank Show interview with Harold Pinter: “It was exactly like getting blood from a stone, except that stones do not smoke. Pinter smoked all the time. You could tell that the interview was edited down from hours of film because in every shot Pinter had a fresh Balkan Sobranie in his hand. In the tight head-shots there was so much smoke pouring up from the bottom of the screen that you began wondering if his trousers were on fire.” – The Crystal Bucket

James married scholar Prue Shaw in 1968 in Cambridge. Their marriage ended in 2012 after a former model Leanne Edelsten admitted to an eight-year affair with James. He told BBC Breakfast he could have “behaved a lot better,” and apologised for being a “bad husband”. They have two daughters Claerwen and Lucinda.

James was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1992. In 1999 he was made an honorary Doctor of Letters of the University of Sydney. James was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2012.