Letters from a merry critic

Clive James, who's mellowed with age, is a worthy successor to Alistair Cooke

The radio talk belongs to the era of the Third Programme, announcers in dinner jackets and a cultural hierarchy in which a nation would listen gratefully to Professor Joad, J B Priestley and the radio doctor - and not interrupt. Nowadays even the Reith Lectures end in a Q&A. On Radio 4, I suspect, the talk as a format would have died out years ago save for the longevity of Alistair Cooke, responsible for 58 years of his mostly inspired Letter from America and hundreds of hacks exercising their literary egos on From Our Own Correspondent.

When Cooke died three years ago, Radio 4 had a real problem - what to do with the 15 minutes he had occupied before the 9am Sunday news bulletin (the talk was actually a repeat from Friday night) - for Letter from America was as much a Radio 4 icon as The Archers and the shipping forecast.

Some of us had hopes that Christopher Hitchens, who succeeded Cooke as Britain's most famous journalistic export to America, would fill his shoes. But Hitchens was too fizzy a product for Radio 4. Its controller, Mark Damazer, decided he was not looking for another letter writer from America. The slot was trimmed and renamed A Point of View and the talking was divvied out: 13 weeks to Harold Evans, who knows as much about America as Cooke but has a voice like a burbling drain; 13 to Brian Walden, allegedly one of Britain's cleverest men, but here a master only of the obvious; another 13 to David Cannadine, an academic. And so on (I frankly forget who else has held the fort).

But now a solution has presented itself. It is not fashionable to praise Clive James, a clever dick who became famous for his criticism in the Seventies and for a chat show in the Eighties. His recent interviews with cultural figures on Sky Arts have been offensively oleaginous. But his contributions to A Point of View early this year were promising and his return pure joy.

Eight weeks ago, when the series restarted (Fridays, 8.50pm; Sundays, 8.50am), he called himself a "caped cultural critic" who swung "high above the teeming streets on the lookout for fallacious arguments to counter and damsel-like humanist values to rescue from durance vile", but acknowledged that, like the dark knight himself, he was prone to pessimism. In this run his determination is to praise - and to praise, as most critics know, is harder to make entertaining than to damn. But James has not let us down, celebrating precisely those things that you would expect him to excoriate and praising them in ways no one else would think to.

So he looked at the paintings of Jeffrey Smart and realised the built world had made the universe more, not less, beautiful. Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull was a symbol of celebrity culture - and that culture was not so bad either, for even Britney Spears's existence had a point, if only to prove that wealth for its own sake is pointless.

Glider shoes? A triumph of technology which had come too late for him but made him realise that the secret of later life was to learn to enjoy the fun you might have had if you had been born in a different age. The Wimbledon TV commentators whom in the Seventies he would have ridiculed in his Observer column? They possessed such wisdom that it informed us about not just tennis, but life in general. J K Rowling? He couldn't read her stuff himself, but he acknowledged the deep well of imagination she drew from and contrasted her with those journalists who delude themselves that "a thick volume of chick lit written a paragraph at a time before breakfast" would make them rich.

Sunday Worship, which precedes the slot, asks us to thank the Lord for the world. James suggests we give this crazy old civilisation of ours some of the credit, and not to believe those who warn that it will leave us under 20 feet of water dotted with the corpses of polar bears. James, who is 67, has assumed the modest voice neither of a has-been, nor of a never-was, but of someone who attained less than he hoped. "At my age, achievements become few and small," he says. He walks slowly to minimise his impact on the environment. He claims to be at an age when he can't remember anything. There is a valedictory tone to his talks. Mark Damazer must not allow it to lead to a formal farewell. He must give him Cooke's gig permanently.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

My Life in Soap
18 August, 10.30am, Radio 4
WIlliam Roache on being Ken Barlow for ever.

Bill Hicks – the Dark Poet
21 August, 10.30pm, Radio 2
The greatest stand-up I ever saw remembered.

The Most Valuable Musical
Notes in History
24 August, 3.45pm, Radio 4
Vince Graff on corporate jingle hells.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time