The Jonathan Meades Collection [DVD]
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This three disc collection includes thirteen 10 shows drawn from those Meades has written and performed in since 1990. They belong to no genre but their own. They are staged essays, rehearsed artifices. They are biased and indifferent to 'balance'. By televisions standards they are visually elaborate and verbally complex. But theyre also comic entertainments, both witty and knockabout - they do not confuse seriousness with solemnity.
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In his introduction Meades say that his intention was “to cast light on what is occluded and forgotten and, sometimes literally, unmapped. And also to draw attention to what’s under our noses: the everyday stuff under our noses that is so familiar that it is ignored or held in contempt.” That may be so, and is a primary attraction of the films; but equally there is the humour, especially where he connives with members of the public to create sequences and visual puns that often had me laughing out loud.
The episodes included in this set and their subject-matter are summarised in what follows.
1. Severn Heaven – The interwar shack, plot-land settlements. Meades explores the largest of these, by the River Severn. I am surprised he says it is of its time when the tradition of erecting dwellings on common land goes back at least a millennium.
2. In Search of Bohemia – “A conjunction of name, place, and state of mind.” The places are in southern England, not in the Czech Republic.
3. Get High! – Meades confronts his vertigo. I know how he feels.
4. Belgium – In which our hero tries to solve “the riddle that is Belgium.”
5. Remember the Future – “We’re helplessly dependent on the fruits of the technological revolution, but we scorn the utopian vision that they were meant to serve.”
6. The Absentee Landlord – Postwar ecclesiastical architecture. This was a seminal programme for me, awakening an interest that has proved enlightening.
7. Double Dutch – The culture of Holland: that is, Holland in England.
8. Fast Food – “The noxious stench that defines our era. It is our tallow, our coal-gas, our sewage.”
9. Father to the Man – An autobiographical journey on how the midget autodidact from the planet Pigignoramus (his words) came to regard “suburban avenues and riverbanks, back streets and words as the best free show on Earth.” Unsurprisingly, this is the episode in which he stretches least the viewer’s lexicography.
10. Magnetic North (Parts 1 & 2) – In which our hero turns his back on the traditional Grand Tour and heads north along the coast from Picardy to Finland. Architecture, food, drink, economics, mores, health, religion, art, landscape: a veritable travelogue that beats Palin by miles.
The only extra is a forty-minute interview with Mark Lawson. Here, strangely, Meades sometimes has to struggle for words. He does enlighten us though, pointing out that all is scrupulously scripted and planned before filming commences, and Meades describes his work as being “As much music-hall as lecture-hall.”
That the BBC claim 'copyright' as a reason as to why they can't release more of these programmes is troublesome. I'm fairly sure that the programmes were BBC copyright when broadcast. Which idiot sold the copyright, to whom and why? Buy it back and release the programmes - some of us would pay a good deal to have the full collection.
Could anyone imagine the BBC commissioning these programmes in 2015? Sadly, nor can I. Back to Radio 4 then. Hey ho.
The interview with Mark Lawson is included but as other reviewers have mentioned doesn't add to the package. Lawson spends most of his time reading through his prepared questions.
I'd seen the original Severn Valley programme ("set in a distant present") but was glad to be reminded of it, but for some reason I missed quite a lot of the ensuing ones, including Get High which did my stomach no good whatsoever. I identified entirely with him as he crawled on his knees across Clifton Suspension Bridge and I agree, bridges should be banned - all of them. His remark that "fairgrounds are legalised brothels that satisfy non-sexual appetites" doesn't really make sense if you think about it, but never mind, I like any space I'm in to be above me, not below me, so the cathedral shots were good.
Belgium has a lot more going for it than I thought, putting to shame the insular regimented suburbs of Britain, though other scenes exemplify his point that its rural areas "have a bleakness we've almost lost the knack of in England." Full marks too for the cruel remark about Belgium's public buildings reminding him of "a dwarf with a penis enlargement."
DVD 2 onwards, apart from "the lime green posing-pouch of reality" was more of a mixed bag. Some of the descriptions of church architecture (Coventry cathedral "in the shape of a radiogramme" and "a descending flock of bobbins") were delightful and I feel I learnt more about church architecture in England than I expected (modernist parasitism, exercises in pure form, the apparent rule that architects should forget what a church was supposed to look like and the way this worked towards inducing a general indifference to religion, leading to the cosy non-church, one step on from your granny's front room).
The Hanseatic history in the Magnetic North episode was revelatory for me. But I felt equivocal about Meades' preference for buildings erected in praise of Mammon rather than those erected as colonial bastions. His antennae shivered in the wind over gothic Victorian too. Shouldn't one judge buildings on purely aesthetic grounds? Not everyone prefers Georgian simplicity - gargoyles were often the creation of rough workmen leaving their mark where tradition dictated they might. I was pleased too to hear about the Paganist movement in Finnish architecture. All in all, a distinct pleasure throughout. More please.
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