Visions Before Midnight

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First edition (publ. Jonathan Cape)

Visions Before Midnight is a selection of the television criticism written by Clive James during his first four years (1972–1976) as The Observer's weekly television critic. The selection begins with a piece on the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and ends with a piece on the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. It was first published in 1977. The title derives from Sir Thomas Browne: Dreams out of the ivory gate, and visions before midnight.

Before being contracted by Observer editor David Astor, James had previously written one piece per month on television for The Listener and its editor, Karl Miller, had been an important influence on James. He had allowed him to, "write a column which eschewed solemnity so thoroughly that it courted the frivolous. Like Lichtenberg Karl Miller appreciated the kind of joke that unveils a problem: if your gags had a serious reason for being there, they stayed in." James explains in the preface: "Television was a natural part of my life. I loved watching it and I loved being on it. The second passion has since somewhat faded, but the first remains strong, and was very powerful at the time. I watched just about everything, including the junk. The screen teemed with unsummable activity. It was full of visions, legends, myths, fables. T.V was scarcely something you could feel superior to. It was too various. What I had to offer was negative capability, a capability for submission to the medium. I was the first to submit myself to Alastair Burnet and find him fascinating. No critic before me had ever regarded David Vine as a reason for switching the set on."

In the preface James says that the idea of publishing a selection of his television criticism had been in his mind since speaking with Kenneth Tynan at a reception at the Garrick Club. Tynan had said he hoped James would publish some of his criticism but averred that, "A television critic would have to know everything, and who knows everything?" James had been lost for an answer at the time but in the Preface replies, "It isn't necessary to know everything – just to remember that nobody else does either."

Programmes reviewed:

The Potala Palace.."Frank Gillard called Tibet 'an autonomous part of China' without mentioning that China invaded it first."
  • WorldwideChina Today – "Frank Gillard called Tibet 'an autonomous part of China' without mentioning that China invaded it first."
  • Father Brown – with Kenneth More
  • Porridge – "A rock-solid script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Good comic writing depends on a regular supply of real-life speech patterns."
  • Face your Image with Lord Longford – "One of the most conceited men alive..Richard Ingrams contended his great love in life was publicity."
  • Notorious Woman – drama about the life of George Sand – "In the final episode Chopin croaked. It was a merciful release for all of us. I enjoyed this series hugely, for all the wrong reasons."
  • David Copperfield – "Arthur Lowe's Micawber is better than anything."
  • Lifestyle featuring Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene – " galloping cretinism."
  • A Passion for Churches with John Betjeman – "Not quite the heady scope of Betjeman's masterpiece Metro-land, but still very good."
  • Trevor Nunn's Antony and Cleopatra – " a trail-blazing production."
  • Churchill's People – "Somebody on the top floor has gone berserk – the writing reveals nothing about the past of the English people, but much about the present state of the English language; 'While we wait here waiting for the Assembly to assemble..' one poor sod found himself saying."
  • World in Action – profile of Margaret Thatcher – "The camera loves the face and the face is learning to love the camera. On camera she comes over as a deep thinker."
  • Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage – "the higher trash."
  • Cannon – "is allowed all the attributes of the slimmer sleuths he is supposed to be different from. When he hits the heavies with the edge of his pudgy hand they collapse unconscious, instead of bursting out laughing."
  • Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means – "A marvellous achievement on every level..Miriam Margolyes, a fine performance."
  • Arthur Hopcraft's Wednesday Love – "Two frustrated suburban wives playing truant on a Wednesday afternoon met two drunk students in a drinking club – the play was directed by Michael Apted and had a lot in it. I hope the tapes of Hopcrafts plays are being kept. He can write better about love than almost anyone."
  • Scenario : The Peace Game – "An epic nonsense Pierre Salinger played the President of the U.S. – it gave him the opportunity of pretending to be his hero John F Kennedy."
  • Don't Quote Me – discussion fronted by Bryan Magee with Michael Apted, Anthony Shaffer, Milton Shulman and Derek Malcolm in an edition concerning the activity of Criticism; Mike Molloy, Margo MacDonald, Anna Raeburn and Jean Rook – in an edition about 'Women and the Press' – "Margo MacDonald said the most sensible thing of the night , which was that the real problem had less to do with the way the Press treated well-known women than with the way society treated millions of anonymous ones."
  • The Male Menopause – "A sub-sociological drone-in, fronted by Michael Parkinson was the mental equivalent of navel-fluff."
  • Inside Story edition called Mini – "Michael, alias 'Mini' is an 11-year-old with the enchantingly gravelly screen presence of the fifties child star George Winslow. He is also a firebug. A sawn-off Max Reinhardt..he's a dazzling kid, the best company you could wish for. Unfortunately if you take your eye off him he'll burn you to the ground."
  • Lord Chalfont interviews the Shah of Iran (BBC1) – 'I can claim' the Shah claimed, 'to have the pulse of my people in my hand.' The pulse being especially prominent in the throat, this seemed more than likely."
  • The Case against Dogs – an "unanswerable assault on the British public's insane fancy for the pooch."
  • The Final Solution:Auschwitz – " a black and white phantasmagoria, from the first SS torchlight rallies to the ultimate paroxysms of the Nazis self-imposed 'task'. "
  • The World at War – "Despite the sheer brilliance of its research I thought it rather less than a distinguished series, principally because the commentary fudged points [and was] too often simplistic rather than simple. The thing just wasn't written very well."
  • Michael Frayn's Making Faces starring Eleanor Bron – "wild subtlety"
  • John Cleese's Fawlty Towers – " the second episode several times had me retching with laughter."
  • Parkinson with Jonathan Miller and Lee Remick – "Lee Remick is an instructive example of how intelligence in an actress can be penalised and yet survive, as opposed to the more numerous examples of the lack of it being rewarded and yet destroyed."
  • ArenaKenneth Tynan asked Lord Laurence Olivier about Lilian Baylis. 'She is sometimes accused of being rude, mean, conceited. Did you find that?' 'Well...yes."
  • Aquarius – "Peter Hall is a man of great abilities, but needs more often to be told that he is mortal. There was an impressive reading by Seamus Heaney. The show promises to retain all its familiar mixed blessings."
  • Arena – with George Melly "Melly was stuck square in a tight head-shot and gave his usual impersonation of a man whose body, while he talks, is being slowly devoured by tiny fish. Melly must have room to rave, and be encouraged to speak the unspeakable."
  • Who Says it could never Happen Here?Lord Chalfont fronted discussion with Anthony Lejeune, Lord Shawcross and ' similar deep thinkers' – "Lord Shawcross said that the next 'five or fifteen years' (1981–1991) would see a totalitarian Government installed in Britain – probably a Communist one . "
  • A Third TestamentMalcolm Muggeridge on Kierkegaard
  • Earl Wild – "If we ate what we listened to we'd all be dead" he said, – he meant Muzak. "
  • Frederic Raphael's The Glittering Prizes six plays about 1950s Cambridge – "Tom Conti played Adam Morris, in a style reminiscent of Peter Sellers pretending to be a lounge lizard" " there was precious little sense of anything special going on – only the contemporary habit of imitating Bluebottle's voice gave us the sense of time."
  • Clayhanger (ATV) – " is so-so , better than bad but less than a knockout...the series looks underbudgeted, the Five Towns are less grimy than tatty, with lanes and alleys laid suspiciously flat and walls that shake if you lean against them."
  • Read All About It – " A J Ayer indulged his bad habit of saying 'Mm, mmm' impatiently while other people spoke...wonderfully unendearing."
  • NewsdayRobin Day talking to General Alexander Haig – "General Haig looks the way a general ought to look, with a Steve Canyon countenance, shoulders like an armoured personnel carrier, and rows of medal ribbons. Unfortunately..it is almost impossible to understand him."
  • Olympic Grandstand – coverage of the 1976 Winter Olympics from Innsbruck – "John Curry pulled out everything!" screamed Alan Weeks.On the evening of the pairs figure-skating final Weeks duly delivered himself of a classic. 'This might well be the night,' mused Alan, 'when Irina Rodnina pulls everything out.' Thereby confirming our suspicions about Russian female athletes."
  • Bouquet of Barbed Wire – " There are worse serials to get hooked on. It won't rot your brains like The Brothers. There is plenty of solid middle-class adultery and incest. Sheila Allen is having a wonderful time as the Older Woman who has welcomed her daughter's husband into her bed."
  • When the Boat Comes In – "James Bolam is quite superb."
  • Terra Firma – "Ned Sherrin, a genuinely sharp character, could easily have run the whole show on his own, but had been burdened with help. Nemone Lethbridge was in charge of the standard item about stud bulls. There was a certain frisson in listening to her ritzy accent while her elegant hand patted a bull's bum."
  • Julian Bond's Breakdown – "Jack Hedley played Ralph, an insurance broker forced to the edge of breakdown by the pressures of second mortgage, second woman, second mess. Bond captured with praiseworthy accuracy the way someone who abruptly finds everything too much retreats to simple decisions and then can't even manage those." With Wanda Ventham.
" Solzhenitsyn laments that liberty has not made us morally aware. Liberty can't do that: political freedom means nothing unless it is extended to those who are incapable of valuing it. The West lacks a common moral purpose because it is free."
  • Panorama – with Alexander Solzhenitsyn – " He laments that liberty has not made us morally aware. Liberty can't do that: political freedom means nothing unless it is extended to those who are incapable of valuing it. The West lacks a common moral purpose because it is free.."
  • Leon Uris ' QB VII – " A mammoth opus about Hitler's destruction of the European Jews. Done from the heart, with no expense spared – everybody from Lee Remick to Sir John Gielgud walked through – this was a television programme which was not afraid to plumb the depths of the human spirit. Not afraid, and not qualified."
  • Chronicle – with Magnus Magnusson – "featured a Danish family, the Bjornholts, returning to Iron Age conditions. The nubile Bjornholt daughters glumly bared their breasts to the Iron Age breeze, thereby supplying the male viewer with an alternative centre of interest while their father chipped splinths."
  • Spirit of '76 with Julian Pettifer
  • Second House on Class with Richard Hoggart – "In a 1956 Panorama Max Robertson interviewed two different lots of schoolboys about their future careers. One lot were from a secondary modern and the other from a grammar school. When one of the sec. mod. boys announced that he saw his future in 'tiling and slabbing' Robertson repeated the words as if, Hoggart observed, he were 'holding a dead fish out.' There could be no doubt in the world about which group Robertson felt at home with."
  • The Roussos Phenomenon – "Demis Roussos – fat, shaggy, rich, dynamic – There is an immense reserve of inner warmth as in a compost heap. 'I think' [said Roussos] 'the most important thing in life is to be loved.' The people you most hate always do."
  • Bill Brand – "A new series about a young Labour M.P. – [with] the kind of principles which will undoubtedly bring him under heavy pressure from his own party whips, – written by Trevor Griffiths and starring Jack Shepherd, [it] will inevitably be compared with Arthur Hopcraft's The Nearly Man, but already looks like surviving the comparison well enough."
  • The Six Million Dollar Man
  • Come Dancing, hosted by Terry Wogan – "In the Grand Final between Scotland and Midland-West, a Scots girl in the cha-cha-cha kicked herself in the head."
  • Whicker – Down Under – with Alan Whicker
  • Horizon – on the neutrino
  • 1976 Summer Olympics – "David Coleman was grappling with the problem of how to describe East Germany's Renate Stecher. 'Stecher really very squarely built.' 'Really square. Very, very strong.' 'The bulky figure of Renata Stecher.' With regard to Renata, the age of chivalry is dead. The erstwhile attempts to establish that she is really quite feminine off the field have been given up, and nobody now pretends that she wouldn't roll straight over you like a truck."

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