FOR THE NEXT EIGHT WEEKS PBS WILL air Clive James' Postcards, an irreverent series of video guidebooks to the world's great cities hosted by the Australian-born critic, author and TV personality. (Scheduled for Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET in most markets; check local listings.) As he filmed these excursions for the BBC over the last seven years, James tried "to capture the all-important first impression" of each city, which, he says, "is not only quite often the strongest but eventually the correct one." Interviewed by phone in Cambridge, England, James was provocative and entertaining—in other words, the ideal traveling companion.
What do you like best about the Postcard from New York City?
The second to the last scene, a guy comes roller-skating down into Times Square at 3 o'clock in the morning, dances in front of the taxicabs and then goes away backward down Broadway. I just love that scene.
Of course, it's the people who make New York. They're all so up-front. It's as if everyone is in the movies. All you do is point the camera—they write their own dialogue. You try that in England, and you're in big trouble, believe me.
You have to get permission for everything. We weren't allowed to film in the City of the Dead, for example. So it was quite embarrassing when they caught us there. A big black Mercedes drew up, and four guys in dark glasses got out of it. I thought we were going to spend the evening in jail, but the usual sort of deal was done.
The usual sort of deal?
Sometimes promises have to be made. You can get a long way by promising someone a video of the finished product.
Filming there is very difficult physically. Everyone looks at the camera, for instance. You cannot get away from the question of poverty. It's the first thing that strikes you and the last thing you must talk about as you leave. But Bombay is also a very creative city, full of mathematicians. More than half of the software coming out of Asia is being written in Bombay, not all of it pirated either. It's a city of people who know how to improvise and make things work. They're like American GIs. They can make a truck run just by pulling up the bonnet, taking a look at it and sticking a few wires together.