MEADES ON FRANCE (BBC4)
I have a soft spot for Jonathan Meades. Despite his frequent forays into national stereotyping and ridiculing of the working classes, Meades always manages to provide enough illumination on his pet subjects; architecture, history and food to present a good hour’s worth of humourous critique. From the early days of Posh Pricks Pontificating To Camera, the Kenneth Clark formula has been a British television staple. What would we do without learned aristocrats and public school boys explaining the wonders of the world to us? Well, maybe we’d end up with former members of D-Ream telling us what black holes are.
I was too young for either Clark’s celebrated ‘Civilisation’ or that other scion of advanced televisual education, Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 epic history of humanity, ‘The Ascent Of Man.’ Well, I was only seven at the time and more in tune to Magpie than Magna Carta. Still a few years later we had James Burke’s ‘Connections’ series and Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos.’ Burke’s ‘alternative view of change’ brought together seemingly unrelated technological advances and traced their origin through history. For example how sheep rearing French monks helped to develop the computer. Sagan’s shtick was more akin to Bronowski’s, offering elevated insight wrapped around a supremely likeable and down to earth personality. Kids could get it, my dad, an unskilled and self-educated docker could get it, even educated fleas got it. This was history and science not ghettoised away in the far reaches of the programming universe but early evening, watch-with-all-the-family fare.
The problem with today’s multi-channel, digitised, press to record, playback TV terrordome is that the likes of Meades now come across as old fashioned. He’s not doing some dumbed down South Bank Show, Sky Arts, BBC4 (OK, not the usual BBC4), Discovery Channel chew-size, sponsored-by, sell onto cable format. His programmes have a look and feel, a style and texture of their own. It begins with Meades’ own words ofcourse and that alone would be worth listening to. However, there is equal emphasis given to visuals and no shot seems sloppy. His use of framing, of archive, of landscape, of architectural detail and narrative are edited with cinematographic flair and technical precision.
I’ve loved his recent work; ‘Magnetic North’ (2008) was a superb discourse on Northern European culture, history and architecture whereas ‘Off-Kilter’ (2009) was a sustained attack on the Scots that would’ve infuriated me….. if I was Scottish. ‘Off Kilter’ was good-natured, knockabout stuff which seemed to have at its heart a fondness for the Scots and their idiosyncratic ways. The episode on the ‘pools towns,’ those obscure Scottish footballing outposts that we all know by heart from the pools coupon results, is perhaps one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen.
Meades’s new series ‘Meades On France’ however, began with a worrying apologia for imperialism, specifically the grotesque French colonialism that resulted in the brutal Algerian war of the 60s. Maybe there’s a personal reason that requires Meades to grind this particular axe because the first episode of ‘France’ although entitled Fragments of an arbitrary encylopaedia’ and centred on the Franco-German border territory of Alsace-Lorraine, returned time and time again to Algeria.
By way of various towns and people that share the letter V (V for Vallin, V for Verdun, V for Vichy etc) what ostensibly begins a Sebald-esque sojourn linking together fragments of history degenerated into an unusually bitter attack on those people he blames for ‘the millions betrayed by the Evian Accords.’ It was this deal between De Gaulle’s government and the Algerian FLN that brought the official war to a halt and resulted in so-called Pied Noires – white French colonial settlers – to retrun to France and saw the liberation of Algeria.
Meades goes as far as saying that the terrorist OAS faction of ultra-nationalist army officers responsible for bomb and asassination attempts on De Gaulle were ‘the armed faction’ of those ‘betrayed millions’ and whereas elsewhere he denounces some former Algerian FLN fighters who later became teachers, as ‘scum’ Meades seems to regard the death sentence passed on OAS leaders in 1963 as a diabolical example of state assassination. It wasn’t the OAS who were crypto-fascists at all but, and here he quotes that other crypto-fascist, Churchill ‘De Gaulle’ and his fifth republic.
The whole tone of this episode is tainted by these outbursts and whilst Meades denounces ideas of nationalist identity as ‘a prison’ and rails against the absurdity of nationalist myths, nevertheless he seems to justify the Vichy collaboration with nazi Germany by making silly, cynical and false statements about those brave men and women who were tortured and murdered as part of the French resistance. ‘The Myth of Resistance’ as Meades puts it as if his moral relativism can only judge death as equally obscene whatever the cause.
It’s a shame that a gifted writer and broadcaster like Jonathan Meades seems to be heading in the same political and aesthetic direction as the late Chris Hitchens and Martin Amis. They are professional controversialists given the kind of platform and critical kudos denied to everyone save a small number of fifty something, white, Oxbridge educated males who no doubt have the ear of the DG.
They are very clever, that’s true and they have imagination too, which is great. They are iconoclastic and unafraid to challenge orthodoxies but they are also perhaps over-indulged by both the right and left wing critocracy who appear unwilling and/or unable to challenge their often obnoxious excesses. At his best, Meades is about the funniest, most articulate and profound presenter in modern television, and much of ‘On France’ is classic Meadesian territory, yet with this episode a hint of that old school tie bigotry and prejudice began to reflect in those trademark dark shades.