Play All: A binge-watcher's notebook by Clive James


Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It is only when readers recall the weekly column in the London Observer from 1972 to 1982 that the puzzlement over Clive James’ title is explained. By comparison with that period the second decade of the twenty-first century is awash with television shows and series. Bingewatching is now ubiquitous. Netflix, Jack, box sets and so on becoming a total that is impressive by any standards. Clive James examines them for us, his agile brain and liquid tongue creating a book that is way beyond enjoyment.

Because he knows we care he takes the time to reassure us about his health issues but reports on it in his own way, linking his health to that of a main character in The West Wing. “I was able to function professionally almost as well as President Bartlett… whose undeclared disease did not inhibit him in his capacity to bomb the Middle East, outfox Chinese diplomats, or deal with the frightening facial mobility of Stockard Channing in a fit of anger” (3). Always the incisive wit in the tail of the statement. Hence, in relation to The Sopranos, he dismisses “the beautiful Adriana, whose only gift is for wondering why a fluttering of her eyelashes is not in itself sufficient to vacuum the carpets” (27).

James directs his attention over a broad span of television. The West Wing, the Sopranos, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Homeland and The Game of Thrones form a representative collection. His most detailed focus is on Game of Thrones, while Pacific is dismissed as “at times the script sounds barely filmable” (55). He is disparaging of characters who don’t make the grade. In commenting on Christina Hendricks in the role of Joan Holloway he says that “she’s a parody, and even at the time she would have been thought of as too much” (129). Reviving The West Wing again – and possibly again since James’ command of the English language is always staggering and his quips instantly quotable, we come to the comment on Americans who “despite agonies of ideological guilt, …are under the constant pressure to believe that pulchritude is a social construct instead of a divine caprice – still find themselves obliged to obey the ancient and perhaps accursed Hollywood rule of putting attractive females on screen wherever possible” (83).

There are judgments that can be described only as beautiful. In Band of Brothers the exhausted medic Eugene Roe, played by Shane Taylor, looks for a particular nurse but finds her gone. “Her mere absence, registered in a few shots, has as much impact as the grand total of all the battle scenes set in the Hurtgen forest” (47), a glowing tribute to the cinematographer, director and the star of the scene being described. Even more it opens to us the full impact of the absent nurse. In Saving Private Ryan James throws his mantle of approval over the ‘extras’, some of whom he labels superb. “Try watching the climactic scenes in the village without becoming a fan of Edith Piaf” (46) he challenges.

As has been hinted in various ways Clive James creates an analysis of The Game of Thrones as a very impactful statement. Teasing the reader with his descriptions of the temptation to open the box and play the disks therein while not submitting to the easy taunts of his granddaughter to view the Thrones disks he eventually gives in, and begins a thoughtful, well balance expose of the series. There is much about the episodes he finds exciting and worthwhile. His eyes wander across a landscape of bare breasts, Brazilians, and open sex but thankfully, he asserts, the Hollywood convention of not showing penises holds good. He explores the characters and comments on their effectiveness.

James riotous comments on one of the female leads in his chapter Ariadne’s Labyrinth had me laughing out loud. “Superbly equipped by the cold edges of her classically sculptured looks to incarnate the concept of a femme fatale, Lena Headley beams Cersei [Lannister’s] radiant malevolence” (154). In a tone that almost worships the creation and projection of the character, James writes, “In a cast list where almost everyone stands out, the evil queen Cersei Lannister stands out most among the women, for she combines stately grace with limitless evil in just the right mixture to scare a man to death while rendering him helpless with desire” (154). James compares this queen to Proust’s mother who would not climb the stairs to kiss her son good night. In James’ view, failure of this queen to climb the stairs is a big plus.

The series Game of Thrones is faultlessly analysed and prodigiously reported upon. It is the series upon which he expends considerable thought. However it is impossible to pick anywhere in Play All where the commentator’s description falls down. It is a wonderful insight into a wonderful writer and I urge all readers to obtain a copy. It is truly a treasure.

Play All – a Binge-watcher’s Notebook


By Clive James
Yale University Press
ISBN: 9780300218091
216pp; $AU36.95

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