Andrew Collins on working with Clive James: “To collaborate with him was like winning a competition”

The Radio Times Film Editor remembers the disarmingly charming broadcaster

Clive James

In 1679, the last Dodo was killed in Mauritius by British sailors. A Navy spokesman said, “It’s regrettable, but these lads have got to let off steam when they go into town at the weekend and believe me, some of these birds are no angels, you know.”

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Is that funny? I hope so. It was one of pages and pages of history-themed gags that erstwhile Radio Times contributor Stuart Maconie and I churned out for Clive James, whose loss will be deeply felt by those who knew him and those who felt they knew him from his amiably well-read presence on ITV, as well as eruditely funny memoirs and, lately, reviews of box sets.

Stuart and I were known as “the boys” around the offices of Clive’s production company Watchmaker, hired to write the bulk of the great man’s gags on a three-hour satirical review of the last thousand years for New Year’s Eve 1999.

A polymath who was at the time learning Japanese so that he could fully appreciate Japanese poetry, and who considered the tango a matter of life and death, he was convinced by his business partner Richard and producer Elaine that even he couldn’t possibly write a three-hour show on his own. He was magnanimous enough to laugh at the jokes of two ex-music-press hacks who fancied themselves as comedy writers. When he laughed his eyes disappeared even further back into his famous head.

It was disarming to see him ambling around the office, smaller and craggier than TV portrayed him, open-necked, usually in shirtsleeves, sometimes in what can only be described as a gardening jumper. We loved Clive James. To work with him – to collaborate, breathe the same showbiz air – was like winning a competition. When we first met him, he leaned in, proffered his hand, turned on that Clive James twinkle, and said, in fluent showbiz, “Thank you for being you.”

“OK,” he would say. “Let’s see what the next batch of archive throws up. I’m going to take a break. Boys, do you want to come to my office in an hour and we’ll work on the latest version together?” (I was 34, Stuart 39). We produced a monster 172-page yellow shooting script, and took it on the chin that part of our job was to gently wake Clive up form an afternoon power nap in his office, sweetly personalised with photos cut from magazines blu-tacked to the wall around his camp bed, many featuring vintage sex symbols like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. He usually had half a cheroot in his mouth.

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When the production was finally shot and edited, Stuart and I thanked Clive for being him.