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In Extremis

6 November 2000
Neil has nothing to declare but his genius.

The light is dim: only the tense figures seated around the table are at all illuminated, a soft glare highlighting the different way these strong characters are dealing with this confrontation. One is in constant motion as a dozen nervous tics pluck him in various directions, another whose carefully groomed long hair fails to become his ageing face bares his teeth at the way the action is unfolding; none of them utter a word more than is necessary and plumes of blueish smoke drift up into the light from nearly every hand. Eyes shift and sweat starts to bead as the stakes become higher and a reassuringly detached voice with a soft American accent elevates to a whispering crescendo as Martin Amis finally reveals his pair of cowboys.

Although there can be few sights as enthralling as late night celebrity poker on Channel 4, it also ought to serve as an important reminder to would-be literary colossi on how to make television work best for them: don't go anywhere near it.

People are beginning to wonder whether our current age of cultural saturation is capable of producing lasting classics, books and plays that will become part of our literary heritage, that will be remembered, read and performed centuries after their authors are dead. Could it be that these days there's simply too much around, too many books published each year, too much music churned out, for any choice few to be picked out by national consciousness as the Classics, the inspireed upper echelon that encapsulates the truth and the spirit of our age.

Perhaps we know our artists too well, I don't mean the sordid details they'd rather keep hidden (as Butch Oscar found out, whatever the immediate minor inconveniences, scandal never did anyone's long-term career any kind of harm) we see too much of the humdrum: how can you revere a man when you know his dentist's bill? Could we have as much respect for Mr. Wilde if we saw how badly he went down in Three Spades round at Countess Litchfield's the other night just as we can see his latter-day imitator Stephen Fry desperately pulling his best bluffing faces when we know that all he's got is Queen high. The only artists who can create any kind of mystique about themselves are virtual hermits like J. D. Salinger who have to fortress themselves away to hide how ordinary they are.

But maybe we're wrong to look for the classics of our age in such long-established art-forms. Could it be that the media which have produced the works of genius we were weaned upon are exhausted, so stagnant that the impossiblity of using them for anything new has driven artists to seek out conspicuous extremism. I don't know much about classical music but, however innovative he may well have been, I find it hard to imagine that if Beethoven lived today he would produce anything along the lines of Stockhausen's sextet for cellos, each in its own helicopter.

Cinema shows how a relatively young medium can produce recognised works of genius but can this transfer to television's diversity? Are we still too narrow in looking for genius in conventional genres (drama, comedy) transferred to the televisual form- should we be seeing it in everything the box has to offer: quiz shows, consumer programmes, adverts? But how do you determine genius- surely not in seminal influence, Airport influenced the whole fly-on-the-wall genre (Hotel, Cruise, Brothel etc.) but it won't become a classic. Not by ratings either, just like music the stuff that lasts rarely made it to number one: think Fawlty Towers then listen to Britney and weep. Or maybe there will be no classics, maybe TV is spent, a dead-end medium: there's already plenty of evidence for television's stagnation leading to conspicuous extremism stage without us having to even begin contemplating a naked Keith Chegwin.

Talent and industry have supporting roles, no amount of Cartland best-sellers will topple Salinger's first-time success, but time and luck are the friends to have if you want to be remembered as a genius, not to mention a kind treatment by history to ascribe you witticisms you never conceived and for the most part obscure the fact that you first achieved fame by touring America as a publicity stunt for Gilbert & Sullivan. Don't expect a say in how you're remembered either, Arthur Sullivan himself would have been furious that his operettas are still amateurishly trundled out with glazed-eyed devotion whilst his Serious Works gather dust. As Dr. Johnson never defined it, a genius is someone who has God as their publicist. Wish you'd said that? You will, Oscar, you will.


Previously on upsideclown


Current clown:

18 December 2003. George writes: This List

Most recent ten:

15 December 2003. Jamie writes: Seven Songs
11 December 2003. Dan writes: Spinning Jenny
8 December 2003. Victor writes: Rock Opera
4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
1 December 2003. George writes: Charm
27 November 2003. James writes: On Boxing
24 November 2003. Jamie writes: El Matador del Amor; Or, the Man who Killed Love
20 November 2003. Dan writes: Rights Management
17 November 2003. Victor writes: Walking on Yellow
13 November 2003. Matt writes: Disintermediation
(And alas we lost Neil, who last wrote Cockfosters)

Also by this clown:

17 June 2002. Neil writes: Cockfosters
23 May 2002. Neil writes: Siege Mentality
29 April 2002. Neil writes: Oh So Pretty
1 April 2002. Neil writes: Lost
11 March 2002. Neil writes: These Are The Days
14 February 2002. Neil writes: Bedtime Story
21 January 2002. Neil writes: Said She Was An Artist
24 December 2001. Neil writes: Here's All the People
3 December 2001. Neil writes: On Antibiotics
8 November 2001. Neil writes: Private Schooling
15 October 2001. Neil writes: Morning After
20 September 2001. Neil writes: Flightpath
27 August 2001. Neil writes: Tsarina
2 August 2001. Neil writes: Family and Friends
9 July 2001. Neil writes: My Fabulous Weekend
14 June 2001. Neil writes: The Sound of Music
21 May 2001. Neil writes: Lethal Injection
26 April 2001. Neil writes: Voter Apathy
2 April 2001. Neil writes: ET
5 March 2001. Neil writes: The Shadow Over Brunswych
12 February 2001. Neil writes: Bibliofile
18 January 2001. Neil writes: Suburban Gothic
25 December 2000. Neil writes: Many in Body, One in Mind
30 November 2000. Neil writes: Urban Regeneration
6 November 2000. Neil writes: In Extremis
12 October 2000. Neil writes: Obituary
18 September 2000. Neil writes: Your Mother Sucks Cocks In Hell!
24 August 2000. Neil writes: Parent Power
7 August 2000. Neil writes: Love Letter

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