Abroad Again in Britain

Saturday, January 8, 2005 by

The return of Jonathan Meades to BBC2 was heralded by a din of non-publicity. We’ve been here before. Short of whatever typically unsubtle promotional methods the man himself finds at his own disposal, whenever Meades makes another foray back into his second most natural environment (the first being the printed word, specifically the business of indexing the life story of 1970s celebrities), press offices tend to look away.

The most likely forum for some sort of tie-in, The Culture Show, was otherwise occupied with the fall-out to the Beeb’s screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera. Yet the topic of this programme was on the face of it just as controversial and open to charges of blasphemy: 60 minutes of barbed commentary about Salisbury Cathedral, variously mocking, pillorying and insulting all possible aspects of the building and what it stood for. It was an hour of shameless trashing, from the “dessication and snobbery of the clergy” to the bands of doddery pensioners who bear the moniker “The Holy Dusters” and troop round the place wielding large tickling-sticks.

This was familiar Meades territory: sweeping generalisations about established rituals and traditions matched with swooping visuals poking and prying into the furthest most distant corners of an architectural heavyweight. It was also the same kind of polemical style of film-making the man honed to perfection during previous …Abroad series of the 1990s (Further Abroad; Even Further Abroad). But presumably the sight of a well-spoken, smartly-dressed buffoon-esque caricature (Meades’ black suit and dark glasses ever-present) pacing ponderously around aisles, pulpits and vestries, interspersed with glorious sequences capturing the epic scale of the tallest cathedral in the country, was always going to be less deserving of tens of thousands of complaints than a somewhat less incisive West End musical. What Meades had to say about the practice of religion was just as potentially inflammatory as Jerry Springer – The Opera. He just chose not to do it with lots of swearing.

Abroad Again In Britain, which first debuted on BBC4 last year, marks the return of Meades to his pet subject of architecture, and of the place of buildings in British popular culture. Having spent the last few years dabbling in curious one-offs on topics like surrealism and Victorians while simultaneously transforming his appearance from a tubby roly-poly raconteur to a far more svelte, serious-looking commentator, this wasn’t quite the vintage Meades of old. On the face of this first episode, however, he’s no less impassioned or self-righteous. Salisbury was the place of his birth – “Here’s where I threw up half a pound of butter which I’d drunk for breakfast,” he snarled in his introduction – meaning that the familiar patter was leavened with even more arrogance and self-referential punchlines than usual.

Perhaps this tactic lessens the impact of some of the more knowingly debatable quips and asides. It’s certainly a trait Meades forever wears on his sleeve, possibly by way of defence against just such lurking detractors and likely protests from the objects of his scorn. But it’s a style that marks the man out, as it has always done, as unique amongst TV critics. All of Meades’ programmes are about himself in relation to the things he is discussing, rather than the things in and of themselves. Yet that’s precisely why they always make for such arresting viewing. You didn’t have to be in any way interested in religion, or church buildings, to engage with this kind of extended television essay; just willing to accommodate the presenter’s outbursts of self-consciously demented rhetoric (“Moliere, who, like Sid James and Tommy Cooper, died on stage …”) and his habit of placing himself in as many shots as possible.

Indeed, the camera is just as much part of Meades’ armoury as the spoken word. In this instance there were no shortage of visual tricks and gimmicks to tease out an extra meaning or added irony in one of his remarks (splitting the screen into Andy Warhol-style colourised prints, speeding up footage of a church service, tinting the countryside to look as lush and pastoral as possible). However in a custom that again is far removed from conventional “this-is-art” programmes, the lens made a virtue of the medium by, quite rightly, showing us angles and sights we can’t possibly see in normal life: gliding up into the rafters of the cathedral roof, following the frankly terrifying work of the steeplejacks as they replaced a light bulb on the very top of the spire, and soaring around and above the entire building and town. It was the very epitome of what decent arts and culture-based TV should do: showing us new, stimulating ways of looking at old, familiar things.

What also helped to offset the impression of the programme being solely a soapbox rant from behind a pair of shades was the space given to denizens of Salisbury Cathedral to raise and discuss their own views. It was hard to doubt the sincerity of the various employees, from the tremulous dean (“Nobody should come here unless they are prepared to encounter God”) and enthusiastic organist (“The real excitement is waiting for the pedals … steady!”) to the plaintive guide (“I think this is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.”)

We were left to make of their comments whatever we chose, just like we were left, or rather challenged, to respond to the equally sincere opinions of Meades himself. He’s a man who has no shame whatsoever, whether in treating his audience to an appalling Loyd Grossman impression, or half-heartedly miming a scene where he pretends to play cricket for England. He’s even willing to stand in a pigpen, not really to demonstrate the living conditions of peasants in the Middle Ages, but purely for the comic effect of mud-splattered beasts snuffling around his crisply-pressed clean trousers.

In most ways this was just as exciting and thought-provoking television as the melodramatic transformation of Jerry Springer that was screened a few hours later. It was also a lot less repetitive and tuneful; no caterwauling vocal acrobatics here, rather an assortment of 1950s hits from Meades’s childhood.

That both can share a place in the BBC2 schedule, however, is perhaps the most important thing of all.


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