Saturday, September 29, 2001 by

Writer, critic, gourmet and erstwhile biographer of Dickie Davies, Jonathan Meades made his perennial return to BBC2, presenting a programme on the subject of surrealism. Meades’ loyal fans were slavering in anticipation, knowing what was in store – a witty, belligerent, confrontational visual essay, full of both high and lowbrow cultural reference points, elegantly photographed and edited into a highly entertaining mini-epic, a welcome relief from the unadventurous, Mark Lawson-fronted, blandly reverential drear that has typified the channel’s “arts” output for over a decade. This was more of the same, but also, appropriately enough, rather disconcertingly different.

He’d lost a hell of a lot of weight for a start. The comfortingly familiar pudgy, Bunterish figure declaiming al fresco to camera in black suit and sunglasses had dramatically changed. Change of a less superficial nature was also afoot. Most of Meades’ work for BBC2 of late (two series of Further Abroad, plus one-off specials on subjects as varied as Belgium, Birmingham and the Victorian era) have all centred, admittedly rather loosely, around the theme of architecture. Here though, Surreal Film (as it was billed in the majority of TV guides, resolutely refusing to play along with Meades’ playful cryptography) did exactly what it (almost) said on the title card. This was not only a personal meditation on surrealism, but also, as Meades explained in his Independent column, an attempt to put surrealism back on the TV screen.

But surely we’re already wallowing in the stuff? You know, zany comedy, dark drama, adverts etc? The answer, from Meades, was yes and no. Opening with a montage of news reporters mouthing the word “surreal”, always inappropriately, to refer to real events, he quickly settled on a refreshingly blunt definition of the word – “it means bizarrre”. This is the great thing about Meades’ programmes – he can, and does, impose a bloody-minded authority on the reflected version of the world he creates on screen. The Surrealists With A Large S, ie the loose coalition of largely Catholic European painters, writers and aesthetes-without-portfolio who gathered in the 1920s and ’30s, were also keen on such authoritarian measures. Having decided they wanted to break boundaries, free the unconscious mind and destroy reason, they then set about writing definitions, manifestoes, remapping the world, and any other number of beaurocratic activities hopelessly at odds with their supposed raison d’ĂȘtre. Needless to say, this all gets short shrift from Meades, especially their self-appointed leader, Andre Breton, who as Meades points out, was himself “no artist and not much of a writer”. Other sacred cows of Surrealism are knocked for six – Dali was covered here more for anecdotes of his bizarre social habits and traditionalist, right-wing beliefs than his art, while Magritte, whose dreary visual puns have become the embodiment of most people’s snap idea of what Surrealism means – the Guinness surfers ad world of crazy juxtaposition – doesn’t even merit a mention. Surrealist paintings hardly appear on screen at all, which, given this programme is meant to tie in with an exhibition of Surreal art at the Tate, counts as another winning piece of contrariness from the man.

These stalwarts of O-level art history summarily dispatched, Meades then embarks on his own surreal journey in the company of various resolutely British characters – Alfred Hitchcock, Alice Liddell (here alternately aged and young), various other Lewis Carroll characters including the March Hare as portrayed by Christopher Biggins (hammily excellent in this and several other parts – and as a veteran of both high art cinema and seaside pantomime, a cunningly appropriate piece of casting to boot), a Brummie canine cab driver played by Michael Fenton-Stevens, and Marco Pierre-White demonstrating, at length, how to cook an egg. Many of these elements led absolutely nowhere, but entertainingly so for the most part, mixing trad surrealist props (nuns, corridors, trains) with excruciating verbal and visual puns and wilfully obscure directorial quirks borrowed from the likes of Bunuel and Lynch, these latter occasionally threatening to swamp the programme entirely before a semblance of order was somehow restored. The whole thing veered between a personal meditation on surrealism, a compendium of its preoccupations and stylistic tics, and chaotic scenes of defiantly pointless buffoonery. It all finished with Meades on a hillside from his childhood (along with the weight loss, the autobiographical element was, appropriately, to the fore) directing the excavation of a chalk figure of a bishop buggering a donkey. Earlier in the year Meades had in fact made a public appeal for land on which to really do this, but by the looks of things he had to settle for a faked version, which overlooked the end credits to the strains of late-period Syd Barrett, a fitting summary of the Meades take on “bizarre”.

This was, of course, a monstrously self-indulgent programme. But this was not the offensively wasteful, creatively barren self-indulgence of Johnny Vaughan’s ‘Orrible, or an evening devoted to text messaging, or any other instance of recent BBC managerial folly you may care to mention. The indulgence was purely on the part of skilled programme makers given carte blanche to come up with something unusual and interesting within a very loose brief. Like it or not, it certainly delivered on that score. Anyone tuning in expecting the traditional BBC arts format of paintings in a gallery plus large man standing in front of them explaining their meaning would have been sorely disappointed. The paintings weren’t there, and the explanation, if there was one, was merely that any wholesale explanation of this subject is doomed to failure. Even the large man had been put on hold. (A more conventional standing-before-the-pictures format, held at the Tate exhibition, was aired on Monday night, and in characteristic Late Show style it was both uninvolving and uninformative.) But at a time when talk of “taking risks” in television usually means little more than importing a particularly salacious reality format, or working a couple of topical headlines into a soap storyline, here was a reminder that some risks really are worth taking.


Comments are closed.