Jonathan Meades: Abroad Again

Wednesday, May 9, 2007 by

Lord Reith was a Presbyterian Scot, a Wee Free wallah, among whose folks the most timid involvement in sensual pleasures had you hellbound. Strange, then, that perhaps the greatest living embodiment of Reith’s dictum “inform, entertain, educate” should be a bohemian epicure from Salisbury who extols indulgence in food and architecture.

Jonathan Meades’ new series from BBC Scotland (the irony!) looks very much like further confirming this stature, if the quite startlingly wonderful first-of-five, “Father to the Man”, is anything to go by.

Meades, thick-set and ambling in his suit and shades, was warmish property on TV at the turn of the 1990s – Abroad, Further Abroad, Even Further Abroad (you get the picture), he almost got the epithet “inimitable” in the listings – but since then has had to concentrate largely on hard-fought-for one-offs, cult offerings for the faithful. There was Joe Building and Jerry Building, or the iconoclastic mini-series Meades Eats, whose down-to-the-quick criticism of British food was buried in the schedules so as not to bugger with TV’s glamorising of our “cuisine”.

No bullshit; “Father to the Man” is time-capsule stuff. Magnificent – a good-looking but never glossified autobiography of the development of the author’s sense of place and “how mankind intervened” in the world the child Meades saw around him. It is also a dignified tribute to a late and missed father and “a land of lost content and Koola-Fruita”. An unsentimental salute to a provincial 1950s world of grocers who would sell that obsolete Maidenhead-manufactured ice-lolly and who would unashamedly sport “majestic comb-overs … British Racing Green coffee-roasters and maroon bacon slicers”.

Ricky Nelson and a pot-pourri of string-heavy British light music bandleaders put in appearances on the soundtrack, natch. The scent of Odense marzipan and eau-de-Cologne 4711 hangs heavy. Mmmm …

But period picturesqueness apart, “Father to the Man” concisely details the self-education of a “midget auto-didact” in the means by which humans create the world around them into what is now called the “built environment” – from vernacular architecture to water meadows to shack settlements to Fordson tractors. It makes for a spectacle that would be compelling, varied, funny, even if it were not couched in list-heavy, multi-claused language of a richness and complexity worthy of a good Calvados. No, this is one thing Ant and Dec won’t be doing to justify their salaries.

To say Meades is clever is to indolently miss the point. It’s like saying Zinedine Zidane is a good midfielder, or Boris Yeltsin liked a nightcap. He is also imaginative (further programmes are on garden cities, the evolution of British horticulture on the grand scale, the hypocrisies of the Garden Cities movement, the elision of branding and urban redevelopment). He is also, perforce, very persuasive (how does he get these things made?). The answer to that parenthetical question, by the way, is that he is very, very, very good.

His programmes are opinionated, bracingly prejudicial, but rigorously argued. If your brain blinks for an instant, you’ll miss it. The fact Meades and a small team of trusted directors manage to create such ravishing pictures, whose flow and rhythm are less redolent of British TV than Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and allow the mind to remain engaged with Meades’ lecture – is a marvel of television. Not only of this, but any era.

Meades does not assume, as many inverted snobs mistakenly believe, that everyone knows as much as he does – ie. where Totton is, the date of the demolition of Netley Hospital, what leets are, the source of a Flaubert quote, why he refers to Betjeman as “the topographer, not the poet”. Thanks to the balance of image and text in his programmes, the sensuality of the visual – glaucous underwaterscapes, a splendid olive-green Morris 1000 estate, rostrum stills of Minibrix and Bayko – inspires a democratic and improving impulse to go and bloody well find out who and where and how and what and why. This programme makes cleverness, a hated bane of British life, seductive.

Reith would have loved it.

One review of a collection of Meades’s essays, Peter Knows What Dick Likes (Paladin, 1989) described its author as an enemy of “cultural yobbishness”. Meades is rather an enemy of received and obtuse unwisdom; of imagination and intellect stunted by orthodoxy. He is a natural, inoculant against tabloidism, that media creed which seeks to make of the commonplace a dictatorship of the familiar. In the hands of Meades and his cohorts, that which is unfamiliar in the commonplace becomes real and strange and beautiful.

“Your neighbours are the unknown stars,” wrote the Tour de France’s organiser Jacques Goddet in 1955, of the power of his race to exalt the reality of life for struggling rider and bewitched spectator alike. Here is ample proof – with sufficient application, we can all learn to find that fascination which resides in the apparently mundane.

There aren’t enough superlatives, even in Meades’ supersized vocab, to hurl at this, the programme of the year so far. If you don’t get this, chuck your telly out of the window.


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