A great comfort at year-end

Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James

play-allWhatever is happening outside, a new book by Clive James is always a comfort to read – something you can’t say about many other (predominantly) non-fiction writers, except Bill Bryson.

I grew up reading James’ TV reviews in the Observer every weekend – looking forward to the ways he was able to dissect both high and low culture with perspicacity and wit.

Now, after the success of his last book Latest Readings (reviewed here), and still in remission from his leukaemia thanks to new drugs, he has returned to TV for his latest book – but the special kind of TV that is the ‘box set’.

James has read each day and binge-watched box sets with his daughters. He has four favourites, which he bases the book around – those on the cover, namely: Game of Thrones (which I haven’t watched), Band of Brothers, The West Wing and The Sopranos (which I have seen).

After an opening discussion of the box set phenomenon, James begins his survey with The Sopranos – perhaps the game-changing series of them all – at least in the UK – being the first series made by a cable channel to air on terrestrial TV. It begins with Tony Soprano sitting by the pool wondering where the ducks have gone…

Even at only a first visit to the show, the viewer will already have realized that Gandolfini, who can so easily fade into the background in the movies, looms immensely on television. From Get Shorty you can barely remember him: he was just a failed torpedo that John Travolta threw downstairs. But in The Sopranos he is a magnetic mountain, pulling toward him all legends of haunted loneliness and seismic inner violence.

James moves on to Band of Brothers, the Spielberg and Hanks steered WWII drama that did on TV what Saving Private Ryan did on the big screen. Shame that their follow-up, The Pacific was a flop.

However, it is Aaron Sorkin’s walk and talk genius of a show, The West Wing that draws James out to wax lyrical over how much he loves it.

The pages of dialogue that he [Sorkin] was forced to leave out of his script for The American President were what gave him his initial impulse for The West Wing. In The American President Annette Benning got only a few fleeting scenes to prove that she could talk like Rosalind Russell. In The West Wing, Allison Janney got hours on end to prove that she could talk like Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn all sharing the one table at the Brown Derby.

He loves Janney’s character C.J Cregg so much. Which brings him to the president:

Martin Sheen as President Bartlett brought such biting articulacy to his tightly argued humanist speeches in the first few shows that his role was enlarged, which gives you some idea of what a good actor he must be, because in real life, up to then, his political rhetoric functioned mainly as a means to register protest.

If Jed Bartlett had been real, he’d have won the election in a landslide!  Anyway, on to Donna and Josh:

The speeches that were handed to Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) – pages and pages of dialogue that William Powell and Myrna Loy would have slain for – were good enough to turn them into Romeo and Juliet. For any viewer the age of me or my wife, the only problem about watching and listening to the slow-burning romance of Josh and Donna was the high speed of what they said, often during long walking talks down corridors.

I remember crying with joy when they finally got it together. Sorry for all The West Wing quotes, but I did love that series too and James is so eloquent about it, this section was the star part of this book for me.

He goes on to consider many of other most influential box sets – from Breaking Bad (he doesn’t like this as much), to The WireHomeland and Mad Men taking in the characters, settings and more beyond.

However James saves his accolade for the best acted/written character ever, for a guy from an earlier series – before DVD box sets came of age, NYPD Blue:

More certainly than ever, Dennis Franz’s performance as Andy Sipowicz emerged as something monumental. The handsome guys in the show came and went. … But for the twelves solid years that show-runner Steven Bochco’s most startling creation was running, it was the balding overweight guy, Sipowicz, who was the living symbol of the show, a reformed alcoholic sweating in his short-sleeved shirt on a summer’s day… Dennis Franz’s Sipowicz was a foundation performance in the Hall of Fame of modern American television. Yet afterward, when you saw Dennis Franz again, he was the airport cop yelling bad lines at Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.

There are omissions, and James admits this – for instance one of my personal favourites Six Feet Under is not mentioned, although Dexter which Michael C Hall went on to is there. However there are not enough hours in the day to read and binge-watch TV!

In his concluding chapter, James reminds us that:

‘For the subtleties, we still need books.’

How true, I’ll settle for that – including books like Play All, a small volume which has a simple premise, is entertaining in its execution, but is also profoundly bookish in its subtext. (9/10)


Source: Own Copy.

Clive James, Play All (Yale, Sept 2016), Hardback, 160 pages.

One thought on “A great comfort at year-end

  1. I do love reading Clive James – always entertaining and always humane! I don’t watch any of the shows he’s writing about here but even so I’m tempted to read this, just for the delight of James’ writing!

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