The South Bank Show 40th Anniversary review: a punchy celebration of the agenda-setting arts show

The groundbreaking programme is 40. And Melvyn Bragg, understandably, isn’t going to pass up the chance to blow his own trumpet about it

In 1978, a TV critic called Richard Last wrote: “Melvyn Bragg believes that the songs of Paul McCartney will still be around and highly regarded in 100 years’ time. It would be tempting to offer money on the proposition, but pointless; I shan’t be around to collect.” Last was reviewing a new arts programme on Lwt called The South Bank Show that featured a certain former Beatle. I don’t know if Richard is around now, but if he is he’s keeping his head down. A TV critic who is still around is the great Clive James, who thought The South Bank Show was on to something and said so in a column back then.

And James is here on The South Bank Show 40th Anniversary. “I
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Clive James: ‘A reader has complained about my still being alive’

He has guessed the unsettling effect of going nuts in your face, like Peter Capaldi in The Thick Of It

Somebody on the point of bursting into flames from ungoverned anger has written in with a list of my perfidies, which include my still being alive when he has specifically indicated that he wants me dead. He holds me responsible for unforgivable frivolity in the face of climate change, and for my apparent indifference to the forthcoming nuclear war. And for having lived too long.

From internal examination of his violently aggressive prose, I judge him to be an Australian, so he will understand when I encourage him to insert his head in a dead bear’s bottom. This useful instruction, in a less polite form, I first heard 50 years ago from my friend Bruce Beresford, the Australian film director. Neither of us thought the expression any the less eloquent
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As sizzling as it gets – Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's comic chemistry

How did Coogan and Brydon become ‘the funniest couple since Laurel and Hardy’? As The Trip returns, we rank all their world-beating comedies to find out

Even though it’s squirrelled away behind a paywall, The Trip to Spain looks set to be one of the best shows of the year. As an idea, The Trip has now solidified into a format – Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon competitively impersonate celebrities in nice restaurants then go and be sad in their hotel rooms – that manages to capture the poignancy of middle age like few others before it.

Crucial to this is the partnership between Coogan and Brydon. Coogan is presented as pompous and self-congratulatory, straining to make something more of himself, while Brydon is a facile people-pleaser. Clive James called them “the funniest couple since Laurel and Hardy” a couple of weeks ago, and you can’t deny how special their chemistry is.
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Idris Elba: ‘If I'm going to watch TV it wouldn't be a period drama, put it that way'

Since The Wire, the actor has fought against being stereotyped. Now he’s tackling the UK’s diversity problem with a BBC takeover

Related: Clive James: ‘Idris Elba is the most kingly British star since Richard Burton

Who wants to be that bloke who’s always banging on about diversity? Not Idris Elba, certainly. “It’s become a bit of a corny word,” he sighs. “People are just like: ‘Oh, stop talking about it.’” True, the endless reports, broadcaster targets and media representation surveys can be dull; though, crucially, not nearly as dull as yet another cosy British period drama or all-male panel show. And so, in January last year, big-time Hollywood actor Idris Elba was persuaded to give a “boring” (his word) speech at the Houses of Parliament. At the event, arranged by Labour politician Oona King, he called for a “change of mindset” among broadcasters.

Related: Idris Elba
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Robot Wars series 9 episode 4 review

Louisa Mellor Mar 26, 2017

Few robots are left standing in the latest, ultra-destructive episode of Robot Wars

This review contains spoilers.

See related Marvel Studios movies: UK release date calendar Thor: Ragnarok - Natalie Portman's absence explained Guardians Of The Galaxy 2: 7 new international posters land

It’s somewhat in the lap of the gods, the entertainment value of any given episode of Robot Wars. If they smile upon the arena, the spinners spin and the crushers crush and we all have a jolly old time of it. Every so often though, things just never quite get going. Drive motors burn out, bots are immobilised after a single collision, and it all ends not with a bang but a whimper.

When that happens, it’s the job of the production team to string out the pre and post-bout interviews and make up for the thrills absent in the arena
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Bruce Beresford to shoot 'Ladies in Black' in Sydney

Bruce Beresford.

Bruce Beresford will shoot Ladies in Black in Sydney later this year, after securing production investment funding from Screen Australia.

The feature is based on Madeleine St John.s 1993 novel The Women in Black. The book was turned into a musical by musician Tim Finn in 2015, though the film is an adaptation of the novel, not the musical.

Set in Sydney in the summer of 1959, Ladies in Black is the story of suburban schoolgirl Lisa, who takes a summer job at a large department store where she works alongside a group of saleswomen who open her eyes to a world beyond her sheltered existence.

The film will be produced by Allanah Zitserman and Samson Productions. Sue Milliken. Beresford and Milliken have written the screenplay, and Morris Ruskin of The Ruskin Company will executive produce.

Beresford said he had been obsessed with adapting the book since being introduced to it by Clive James.
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Clive James: ‘Idris Elba is the most kingly British star since Richard Burton’

To collect an actor’s performances is still one of the best reasons for continuing the long search into infinity

As a Denzel Washington fan, I try to see every movie he has made. When I was still flying, I would watch a Denzel movie two or three times on the trot, just to study the way he timed a sardonic smile – even today, I time a sardonic smile at my granddaughter’s dog. But those of us who would once haunt the DVD racks to pick up a Denzel movie must reconcile ourselves to never seeing, on any flight entertainment system, one of the greatest performances of his late period. Starring as an airline pilot in Flight, he is not only meant to be high on alcohol, but the airliner is also meant to be on the verge of falling apart.

Long before it crashes, you realise that, if
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Mike Fentiman obituary

Innovative television producer behind BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up

The innovative spirit of BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up owed much to the creative skills of one of its senior producers, Mike Fentiman, who has died aged 78. His enthusiasm and wide range of interests fired up a whole generation of programme makers to create lively and often surprising television. He championed the new, pioneered the radical and irritated the BBC establishment.

The initial idea of Late Night Line-Up – broadcast every night from 1964 until 1972 – was to look at the evening’s output of the BBC’s two channels with informed and appropriate guests, and I was one of its four long-term presenters. People such as Ken Loach and Tony Garnett would discuss Cathy Come Home, while Clive James and Jonathan Miller appeared regularly as critics.

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Clive James: ‘I’ve been going deaf for years, so wouldn’t have been able to hear SS-gb anyway’

After the first episode, I was wiping the blood from my ears with Kleenex

As if to prove that television’s appeal depends mainly on what it gives you to see, the BBC’s new headline serial SS-gb spends many millions giving you something you can’t hear. Some expert analysts say the show is quite audible, but other even more expert analysts point out that this is true only if you have a Woofendorf M-23 multiple takedown receptor within 10ft of your set and another within 10ft of your feet. It goes without saying that this elementary boosting equipment needs to be further enhanced with a Paxman P-36 growl-filter in your loft, to translate the German of anyone above the rank of feldwebel into double Dutch.

After the first episode, I was wiping the blood from my ears with Kleenex, but here’s the gag: I wouldn’t have heard it anyway,
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The week in TV: The Kettering Incident; Pls Like; Girls; The Moorside

Sky’s eerie new thriller introduces us to Tasmanian gothic. Plus, Liam Williams sticks it to the vloggers, and the return of Lena Dunham

The Kettering Incident (Sky Atlantic)

Pls Like (BBC3) | iPlayer

Girls (Sky Atlantic)

The Moorside (BBC1) | iPlayer

I occasionally like to think most of this nation’s problems could have been solved had the 19th century kept all the convicts here, with the rest of law-abiding Britain upping sticks wholesale to Australia. Instead, we gifted our criminals a few acres of beautiful farming headland, perfect weather, beaches and coral and rainforests and sat back smug with our snaggle teeth and righteous, rained-on foot rot. Fast-forward, and we got back, yes, Kylie, Germaine Greer and Clive James, but also those barkeeps whose perpetual birdsong – no worries, mate! – seems expressly designed to ratchet stress, Murdoch, Foster’s and the bloody Wallabies. Was that altogether a good deal? Cui, exactly,
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Clive James: ‘I’ve done a mental survey of TV arts presenters and can’t find any I hate’

It was a miracle on the scale of Lucy Worsley not dressing up as Queen Elizabeth I

Were I a would-be TV presenter in search of a role model, Andrew Graham-Dixon would fit the frame. As well as wielding copious explanatory powers about art, he comes over as quite butch, with such non-effete features as a vigorously sane hairstyle and powers of elocution not even half as crazy as some other arty presenters we could name. In the opening chapter of his BBC mega-series, The Art Of France, he was not afraid of the bold statement: “Like every great country, France has always been a mongrel nation.”

This was especially bold because it suggested that Japan, for example, had never existed. Even today, it is almost impossible for a foreign artist, or indeed a foreign anything, to take up residence in Japan, whose intellectuals will tell you unblushingly that the
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Den Of Geek's top books of 2016

Den Of Geek Dec 14, 2016

As nominated by our writers, here are the books published in 2016 that we couldn't recommend more highly...

Closing the final page on the very best books leaves you with a single urge: to share it. We’re talking about the kind of books that make you want to follow strangers down the road, tugging at their elbow and saying “seriously, you’ve got to read this”.

Here then, is our equivalent of doing that. These are the books published in 2015 that our writers felt compelled to share. If there’s one that you feel similarly enthused about, please do recommend away in the comments section...

All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

We live in what can charitably be described as interesting times. If you were feeling less than charitable, you might even describe them as dark times. And it has always been
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Clive James: ‘Picture swaths of Britain where thousands of edible dormice reign supreme’

An edible dormouse doesn’t look like that kind of creature. It is very cute

I had thought that the BBC’s Autumnwatch might not recover from the loss of Kate Humble, but I now realise that there has been a gain in strength.

One of the recent shows featured the strangely named edible dormouse, which is not as cute as it looks. If you haven’t been following, the best way to conjure up the truly daunting edible dormouse situation is that there used to be a few of them but now there are zillions, threatening to eat the entire country.

Related: Clive James: ‘I am continually reminded of what a misery guts I have been’

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Clive James: ‘Hillary should have told Trump at least once to go screw himself’

If Trump loses, we will still not be free of his extravagantly coiffed shadow, because the analysis will begin as to why he lost

Donald Trump has not yet been elected president, so my plans to leave the planet are still on hold. I might have to leave soon anyway, but I would rather not have to book my seat on the rocket just because some baroque narcissist in the Oval Office had declared atomic war on North Korea, or South Dakota, or whatever target took his fancy when the hottest patootie in the West Wing typing pool swerved away from the outstretched plea of his tiny hands.

If Trump loses, we will still not be free of his extravagantly coiffed shadow, because the analysis will begin as to why he lost. Nobody sane will ascribe Hillary’s victory to her own command of language. If either of them commands the language,
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Clive James: ‘Mickey Rooney hammed it up rotten as Puck’

Young male actors should still take note of how Rooney observed the pentameter in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Once again, I have finished reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It gets more marvellous every time. I will read it again if I can. What I certainly won’t be doing is going out to see it, although it is sometimes hard to follow in the text. The two main girls, Hermia and Helena, are often hard to pick apart, a task that gets trickier when, magicked by the forest, they swap their affections for those two rather dreary blokes. Although one of the girls is specified as being as tall as the other is small, in the text that doesn’t show up.

But one of the privileges of being increasingly vague, surely, is to skip the detail and spend more time admiring the essential. Shakespeare makes it clear
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Clive James: ‘People have come to talk about my book. Sadly, not all of them have read it’

I long ago learned what to do – you give a precis of your book’s best bits

If predictions are correct about verse being a dying art, those of us who persist in writing it would probably be wise to forget altogether about getting published, and just send our latest poem to each other as an email. Each of us would have a list of names, not all of them fools. It would be a low-profile solution, however, and not many poets would get as famous as Seamus Heaney, who, in Bellaghy, is about to have a whole memorial building opened in his honour, with a coffee bar. Richly deserved, too. And on a suitable scale: he was a giant.

Related: Clive James: adventures in box sets, from The West Wing to Weeds

Related: Clive James: 'I won't get to Barry Humphries' new show, but I can tell
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Nocturnal Animals review – Tom Ford returns with wildly gripping revenge tale

Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal star in this superb second feature from the fashion designer turned film director – a pitch-black thriller to make you queasy with tension and regret

There’s a double-shot of horror and Nabokovian despair in this outrageously gripping and absorbing meta mystery-thriller from director Tom Ford, adapted by him from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. It’s a movie with a double-stranded narrative – a story about a fictional story which runs alongside – and it pulls off the considerable trick of making you care about both equally, something I think The French Lieutenant’s Woman never truly managed. Clive James once wrote that talk about “levels of reality” never properly acknowledges that one of these levels is really real. That probably holds true. But in Nocturnal Animals, these levels are equally powerful, and have an intriguingly queasy and potent interrelation.

Ford has surely raised
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Critic-proof TV: from Mrs Brown's Boys to The Big Bang Theory

Trashed by reviewers, Mrs Brown’s Boys has still been voted best sitcom of the 21st century by its many fans. We look at six other badly reviewed TV behemoths

Related: Mrs Brown's Boys voted best sitcom of 21st century

One Sunday in 1975, actor Ross Ellis opened his Observer to see what the critics made of Poldark, the new BBC costume drama in which he was starring. At the end of the review of the week’s telly, Clive James wrote: “And, oh yes – there is Poldark, which I notice is an anagram for Old Krap. I rest my case.”

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Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James – review

The veteran critic’s exploration of the recent golden age of Us TV drama is an invigorating blend of wit and insight

Everyone who has written television criticism since the 1970s, including this reviewer, has done so in the long shadow of Clive James. Writing his TV review for this newspaper from 1972 to 1982, he effectively turned a column into a genre, and did so with a wit and a learning unlikely to be equalled.

There’s an impulse to speak in the reflective language of the obituarist with James simply because, by his own reckoning and that of his doctors, he has been poised at life’s final credits for several years. Yet his various terminal ailments have not hindered his output either as a poet or a critic.

To a degree of head-nodding that made my neck ache, I found myself agreeing with James's judgments

Related: Clive James:
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Autism should not equal unattractive | Letters

Clive James tells us that “any male hetero viewer [would] think twice about angling for a lift” from Saga Norén (the character in The Bridge) because she has what he terms “a case of near autistic something-or-other” (Weekend, 6 August). On the next page Carrie Mathison, the character in Homeland, is described as bipolar and beautiful. So there we have it: one condition (autistic spectrum disorder) makes a character unattractive, the other (bipolar disorder) does not.

As someone diagnosed with Asperger syndrome I am only too aware that autism is still treated with mockery and contempt. This is the last acceptable form of prejudice. I am disappointed, however, that Clive James, an author I have admired for most of my life, should display this form of prejudice so casually.

Colin Armstrong


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