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Russell Baker [imagemap with 7 links]

Russell Baker on Lucky Jim

Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.

More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.

Kingsley Amis was one of a trio of brilliant comic novelists who made English literature sparkle in the twentieth century. The others were Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. All specialized in the skewering of fools. Wodehouse created the perfect upper-class fool in Bertie Wooster, a brainless twit who needed a butler to do his thinking. Evelyn Waugh took his victims from London society's bright young things, many of whom were his own friends and acquaintances. Wodehouse's method is pleasantly witty, Waugh's politely savage.

In Kingsley Amis there is a lot of Oliver Hardy -- of the exasperated man at the end of his rope, a man fed up with a world where sensible people have to put up with incompetents and third-raters.

James Dixon, the "Lucky Jim" of tonight's story, is an underpaid young teacher stuck in a provincial college far from the joys of London, city of his dreams. His future is in the hands of the incompetent third-rate Professor Welch, head of the history department, who has the power to keep Jim on the faculty or fire him.

The professor has stuck him with the task of teaching the Middle Ages. Jim hates the Middle Ages. Studying the Middle Ages makes him feel fortunate to be living in the age of the hydrogen bomb. This is the only respect in which Jim feels himself the least bit lucky. Still, Kingsley Amis must have had something good in mind when he called him "Lucky Jim," wouldn't you think? Let's see.

Kingsley Amis was a Londoner, born in 1922, a child of the white-collar working class, educated at Oxford, and like Jim Dixon he was a university instructor for a while. After three years in the army in World War II, he began publishing poetry in his early 20s. It was the start of an extraordinary career, which produced several volumes of poetry, some 20 novels, and another dozen books of nonfiction that included essays, criticism, even a book on English usage. He edited anthologies, wrote about food, cooking, and jazz. He published a memoir. After Ian Fleming died, he wrote a James Bond spy novel.

His three children by his first wife included Martin Amis, who has also become a successful novelist. After his first marriage ended in divorce, he married Elizabeth Jane Howard, another novelist. Her four-volume family saga The Cazalets" was recently dramatized here on Masterpiece Theatre. After 18 years, this marriage, too, ended in divorce.

Amis died in 1995, and the obituaries were mixed. "A man of outrageous wit and genius," one said. Another called him "a supreme clubman, boozer, and Blimp." The "Blimp" referred to the increasingly reactionary social and political positions he took as he aged. Five years before his death, he was given a knighthood and became Sir Kingsley. His son Martin Amis said it was for being "audibly and visibly right wing."

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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