Picks and Pans Review: Clive James' Fame in the 20th Century

updated 06/07/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Mon., June 7, 9 p.m. ET)

A-

It's just not fair. On British television, they have witty, urbane, articulate personalities like Clive James, the Australian-born author, critic and TV host. The closest we come over here are such glib-gabs as Pat Sajak, Bob Costas and (aiyeee!) Dick Cavett.

In this four-part documentary, airing over consecutive nights, James delivers a spirited meditation on the spiraling phenomenon of fame, of image overshadowing achievement. He terms the condition an American invention (sure, blame us), tracing it back to the confluence of technology (primarily the motion-picture camera) and the mass media. The impact is ineluctable, as James notes in his preface: "If you're famous and try to get away from your fame, you get more famous for trying to get away. If you aren't famous, you can't get away from hearing about people who are."

This is a celebrity time capsule, as a steady stream of clips of oh-so-familiar figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports, warfare, politics and crime rolls past, from der Bingle to der Führer, from Shirley Temple to Madonna (whom James terms "the culmination of 20th-century fame...self-conscious and conscious of nothing else"). Our host punctuates the footage with a string of dry, slinging aperçus and observations. To wit, of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald: "Each had the uncanny gift of removing all signs of life from the other." Of Adolf Hitler's blustering speeches at Nazi rallies: "To the detached observer he looked like a 6-year-old boy throwing a tantrum in tight underpants.

James's brickbats aren't as numerous or unerring as this iconographic history passes into the second half of the century, but the film snippets are far more telling. This is still an endlessly entertaining eight hours.

In the hands of another of TV's cultural sophists, this topic would have made for a solemn stroll through celebrity Valhalla. (Why does Bill Moyers's name spring to mind? Hey, Bill, there's this new thing called a sense of humor. Have your research staff look into it.) But for James it's a remarkable opportunity to deftly skewer some of the most sacred cows of modern times.

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