Clive James: binge-watching TV saved my family

Illness and infidelity changed his life - but the author says bingeing on box sets has helped heal the wounds

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It is lunchtime in Cambridge on a warm day in July, and Clive James is boiling eggs. “Don’t let me forget these,” he says as he welcomes me into his home, “Because I will. The indignities of old age.”

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I am joining James in the closing stages of a professional life (he describes the period to me as his “posthumous years”) during which he has established himself as an essayist, autobiographer, novelist, poet, columnist, broadcaster, TV critic and, more recently, as a translator of Dante.

We intend to discuss his fascinating new book, Play All: a Bingewatcher’s Notebook, in which he attempts to get to grips with the phenomenon of contemporary television and understand his deep love of the box set.

This is an enthusiasm James, now 76, has been indulging seriously since 2010, when complications arising from leukaemia nearly killed him, and left him too ill to do anything but read, write, watch television and, latterly, attempt to rebuild his relationships with his family.

Those relationships were shattered four years ago when news of a long affair reached his wife, Prue Shaw, a Dante scholar, and James was subsequently ejected from the family home.

The man I encounter is frail, gentle, warm and generous. His short-term memory is shaky. His voice, heavily aspirated, carries a sense of wistfulness and appreciation. He gives the impression of a figure who is preparing to take his leave of the world while enjoying it more intensely than ever.

We settle on a veranda that overlooks his small and neat back garden. I remind him about the eggs. “Oh s***. Yeah. I’ll get those.” He gazes fondly at the trees. “Enjoyment is the first thing it’s given me,” he says, referring to his habit of binge watching box sets.

“And I’m learning stuff from TV all the time. It’s awfully fuelled by values. And it transmits those values and enhances your sensitivity to values. EM Forster, in one of his essays, talked about the aristocracy of the sensitive and the plucky.

“Serious TV is a kind of lagoon, a gathering point, a waterhole, for those people. And you do feel, when you’re all sharing this complex experience, you can’t live any higher than this. It’s democracy made into a constant stream of value.”

This is one of the central arguments of his new book, which, as is often the way with James, grew out of an error of judgement. The error came in 1982, at the end of his ten-year stint as the television critic of the Observer.

Feeling at that time that he knew a bit about the medium, he boldly predicted that in the coming decades all the quality television would emerge not from America but from the “older, wiser, more mature nations” of Europe. “That was entirely the wrong position,” he tells me, and in his book he offers a highly entertaining appreciation of the many programmes that have contradicted him.

They include The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Band of Brothers, The West Wing – all series he has spent hours watching, and discussing, with his wife and two daughters, who are both in their 40s.

The experience of watching TV together has, he tells me, helped to rebuild and deepen their relationships. After Leanne Edelsten broke the news of her eight-year affair with James, “The family,” he tells me, “split up into various houses” within 500 yards of one another in north Cambridge.

“After which, inevitably, we all started to visit each other – constantly! And when my younger daughter [civil servant Lucinda] is here, watching TV together is one of the ways we communicate. It’s a shared madness. And my elder daughter [Claerwen, an artist] is right next door, and she’s a great watcher, too.”

Does he share similar occasions with his wife? “Oh all the time, yes. She is a terrific judge of this stuff. I’m always interested in what she finds interesting.”

James pauses. I remind him once more about the eggs. “Oh yes! You’re dead right.” Another pause. “Oh it’s raining! How wonderful. This is the place to be. On this balcony in this weather. I’m very lucky.

“It was my family’s prescience: I really had had it about 2010, but they were determined to put me somewhere I could be comfortable, and they got it just right. They’re in and out all the time, and I don’t have anywhere to go now. I can’t! I can get to hospital.

“Every three weeks I have a big date there where I get my immune system replaced through a hole in the arm. Otherwise I’ve got nothing to do except to sit here – and enjoy the adventure of the mind.”

I ask if his relationships with his family are where he would like them to be. “My relationship with myself is scarcely that. What’s the non-clever answer? Yes. I’m in a pretty privileged position: I’m still tolerated. I’m enjoying this part of my life.”

A burst of song erupts from the far side of the garden. “A blackbird! How wonderful.” James watches. He is a picture of rapt serenity. With a sense of futility, I revisit the subject of his eggs. “Oh my eggs! You’re quite right. Stay right there. You must get a word picture of me eating eggs.”

When he returns, he taps one on a plate to breach its shell. It is almost totally liquid. “Oh. This hasn’t worked out well.” He looks deflated. I offer him a sandwich I have with me. He now looks as if he has been struck with a cattle prod. “Oh yeah! You can write this in! ‘For a moment he showed the eagerness of old!’ A free sandwich!”


He leans back in his chair. “What a lovely day. Where were we? If I took time to be unhappy I would be so unhappy it would be unbearable to watch. So I don’t. I don’t trust melancholy.

“I know all about it. It’s waiting for me all the time. I stave off angst with wordplay. It would be awfully like boasting to say melancholy motivates me. There are people who have real miseries. And I’m largely free of them. I’ve been lucky.”

In what way has he been lucky?

“Oh, in my family. The girls. My elder daughter, who does everything. And my younger daughter, who is a complete master of doing nothing, but delights me in so many ways. And my brilliant wife. I’m grateful for my whole life. Although… No. I won’t go into the although.” Silence. “It would have helped to be a bit more normal perhaps.”

What in particular about his character would he have liked to change?

“Well, I’d be less stupid. More faithful. Oh, there’s no end to it. There are a lot of things I could have done better.”

He looks weary and remorseful. I shift our conversation to the arts, the great animating passion of his life, and ask what he has been enjoying recently. Another cattle-prod moment.

“I’ve just found someone! This is happening all the time as I get very old. There’s a new singer called Rachael Price, a jazz singer from Tennessee with the kind of voice that makes you tingle.

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“She’s still just a kid [she’s 30]. She is wonderful. And things like that are a great pleasure to me. And a relief. I’ll probably die quite soon. But so what. Because people like her will just be starting their lives.”