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Clive James: A 20th-Century Fame Game : Television: He hosts the eight-hour TV series on celebrity and notoriety that wowed British viewers. The show premieres on PBS Monday.

June 05, 1993|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — "At the start of the century," Clive James is saying, "there was Madame Curie, who was a terrific scientist, and not at all interested in fame. And today we have Madonna, who's only an average singer and dancer. And she's obsessed by fame. Consumed by it." He gives a "go figure" shrug.

Clive James has spent much of the last three years brooding over the subject of fame--its nature, how it changes people upon whom it is thrust, and how it has altered our society, which places such emphasis upon it.

His findings are reflected in an eight-hour TV series, "Fame in the 20th Century," which premieres on PBS Monday and is being heavily touted by the network. (It runs Monday through Thursday, 9-11 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and 8-10 p.m. on KPBS-TV Channel 15 and KVCR-TV Channel 24, then will be repeated in one-hour weekly installments beginning June 14. It begins airing on KOCE-TV Channel 50 on June 20.)

James has written 350 minutes of voice-over to accompany a remarkable selection of film footage, ranging from rare clips of turn-of-the century figures such as Thomas Edison, Leo Tolstoy and Queen Victoria to modern-day icons such as Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and, yes, Madonna.

The series was made for the BBC, and its latter episodes attracted audiences of 9.5 million--about 15% of the entire British population.

While the show is undoubtedly compelling to watch, James makes it intriguing to listen to. One of the most popular and respected broadcasters in Britain, he is a true rarity: a genuine intellectual with an enthusiasm for popular culture, which he conveys effectively through the medium of television.

Born in Australia, James attended Sydney University, but arrived in England in 1962 and went to Cambridge. For a decade he was TV critic for the London Observer, and is as revered by other TV critics as is Pauline Kael by film writers.

James has also written three novels, four mock-epic poems and four books of literary criticism. Three published volumes of autobiography have only covered his life up to his Cambridge days in the mid-'60s.

But he is best known in Britain for his TV series "Saturday Night Clive," in which he peruses what passes for entertainment on TV in other countries. Sheep-shearing contests in New Zealand, brutally violent game shows from Japan, home shopping networks in the United States: All come under his amused gaze.

"Fame in the 20th Century" is the biggest project he has undertaken.

From the beginning, James saw the show as a chronological survey rather than a sociological analysis, which would have meant seeking the opinion of experts. "I wanted famous people to be the story, with a narrative that went forward while tackling themes as it went along. I did 20 drafts of the first episode alone. I thought it couldn't be cracked."

Six months into the project came another revelation: James had assumed "Fame in the 20th Century" would be a series of clips of celebrities, with the camera cutting back to him in the studio after each one. "Then I realized there was no need for me at all, except briefly at the beginning of each show."

Then there was the problem of whom to include and leave out. A few names were obviously in: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles. But it took the production team a whole week to agree on 250 names from this century who were world famous beyond question.

The criterion was always universal popularity. As James says: "Placido Domingo was out because his name was known only to everyone on Earth who liked the sound of good singing. Luciano Pavarotti was known even to people who couldn't tell good singing from bad, so he was in. Stefan Edberg was out because you had to be interested in tennis. John McEnroe was in because everyone was interested in bad behavior."

James is in his early 50s, a thick-set, balding man with a crooked, crinkly eyed grin.

His main thesis for "Fame in the 20th Century" is that fame has grown along with the development of the moving image and the explosion of the media. It is largely, though by no means exclusively, an American phenomenon. And he believes that the cult of the celebrity shapes reality, and possibly distorts it.

The series also examines people who were unwitting victims of fame. Aviator Charles Lindbergh became justly famous for flying the Atlantic solo--but that same fame contributed to the kidnaping and murder of his baby. Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Tate and John Lennon all succumbed to fame in various ways.

"People in America only see the corrosive side of fame when there's a murder," says James. "What they don't see is the constant danger of the isolation you impose on yourself to protect yourself. If you're a star in any field, you put a large amount of money into your own security. Once you start doing it, you have to keep doing it."

Then there are those, like Elvis Presley, who achieve fame early or suddenly.

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