TV review: Jonathan Meades on France

Jonathan Meades is one of those people I have a lot of time for, even though I routinely disagree with him.  Like Adam Curtis (whose blog appears in my blogroll, although I rarely actually visit it: the posts are so densely audiovisual it can take, literally, hours to work through each one), he’s a polemicist.  Like Curtis, he’s not so much a polemicist for a particular viewpoint as he is a polemicist for the necessity of thinking for oneself.  Like Curtis, he’s interested in unorthodox juxtapositions (especially of apparently serious and trivial things), and in approaching weighty topics from unusual angles.  Like Curtis, he’s interested in drawing connections between things that aren’t usually seen as connected (although he’s not called a conspiracy theorist as often as Curtis is).  Like Curtis, he’s routinely mislabelled as a documentary-maker, when he’s actually an essayist – less interested in documenting the world than in exploring ideas.

Like Curtis, his programmes are meticulously well-researched (if Curtis gives the impression of having watched every second of TV ever broadcast, Meades gives the impression of having devoured every book, meal and public building to be found in Europe).  Like Curtis, his programmes carry an air of formidable intellectualism (even though the ideas he discusses are usually pretty accessible, even simple).  Because of this, like Curtis, he is sometimes misunderstood as trying to produce an authoritative account of the things he discusses, when he’s actually just trying to provoke a reaction.  Not, usually, in the way that some newspaper columnists and bloggers try to provoke a visceral reaction, but in the way that a really great teacher tries to provoke an intellectual reaction: to cause people to think about a topic for themselves, and to disrupt the automatic acceptance of received wisdom.  Like Curtis, in other words, he’s an anti-hegemonist, and therefore a very necessary thing.

Unlike Adam Curtis, though, Jonathan Meades is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.  As a case in point, the first programme in his new series* Jonathan Meades on France (available on the iPlayer for the next week-and-a-bit; the second episode, which I haven’t seen yet, is available here) opens with the theme music from the Croft/Perry sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo – about as far-removed from the serious attitude of a typical BBC4 series as one could expect.  There’s also a lot of what has become Meades’ trademark visual style (though I suspect it was developed by his directors rather then him personally): the dark-glasses worn even on cloudy days; the pieces to camera delivered standing stock still in the middle distance rather than close up or walking; the flat, deadpan style of delivery.  All of this is designed, as always, to try and create an interesting visual counterpart to what is, essentially, a fairly un-televisual experience; for someone who works in TV, Meades’ style has always been determinedly verbal, even literary.

This wordiness perhaps explains why, in the process of preparing this sort-of review (not a real review; it’s too scattershot for that), I found myself transcribing whole sections of what Meade said, rather than relying, as I usually would, on paraphrases from memory.  I have the impression that his words are chosen so carefully that to paraphrase them would be to miss the point.  This is Meades, for example, on the subject of a once significant but now somewhat ignored monument in the Alsace region of France:

[6m:50s] The hillside at Nancy which Vaudemont is perched on is holy, or mystical, or spiritual…or one of those superstitious things, anyway.  Rosmerta, the Gaulish god of fertility (a big girl), was honoured here in the 4th Century BC.  The Romans erected a temple to Mercury.  The first Christian site was of the 5th Century. The basilica was built in the 1870s; it’s tower has a Mary on top of it.  She’s 25 feet tall (another big girl): if she’s capable of virgin birth, why should she not have an over-eager pituitary gland? […]

The reason that this hill should have supernatural attributes and imaginary properties dumped on it is clear: it is the only hill for miles around.  The topographically prodigious is routinely claimed for God, when in fact it actually belongs to the marvels of geological happenstance.

The scepticism towards claims of metaphysical significance is only appropriate for an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, but this also serves as a demonstration of why I regard Meades as an essayist working in the medium of television rather than a documentary-maker.  A traditional documentary-maker probably wouldn’t poke even gentle fun at spiritual matters, but more to the point they wouldn’t admit to uncertainty on the question of how the hill should be described.  Meades does so because he wants to emphasise what he sees as the intellectual bankruptcy of the notion that national identity has a quasi-spiritual relationship with geography – a notion that he thinks is central to the concept of French identity.  He stresses this point because he’s developing his thesis that the nationalist movement in France became anti-Semitic and xenophobic in part because of the belief that people from elsewhere – Jews and others – could never become spiritually French because they were not from France.

This is all interesting enough (if not exactly original; the idea that simplistic folk ideologies initially celebrated as an antidote to industrialism were co-opted first into national identities and thence into far right politics is so widely discussed that even I’ve heard of it).  It’s made especially compelling by the way Meades develops his argument, brandishing the names of politicians, journalists and novelists from a period of almost a century to make it appear that he’s discovered something profound and significant.  And it is profound and significant, in a way, but where it falls down is that Meades is trying to imply that this tells us about something quintessentially French, when exactly the same processes were taking place to a varying extent in countries as different as Germany, Britain and Norway; it was, in fact, a pan-European movement.

This is actually a fairly common experience to be had watching a Jonathan Meades programme – that something that appears dazzling and revelatory appears slightly less impressive on reflection – but this is, of course, the point.  Despite appearances, he’s not trying to construct an authoritative account of the thing he discusses, but rather to stimulate thought.  In this case I’d guess he’s most interested in making the viewer think about the idea that it’s pretty much impossible to say anything about France and the French that can’t also be said about any other country and nationality.

This idea – that national identity is fleeting and chimerical – seems to be one of the central themes Meades is exploring in this programme, and not always by such indirect means. Here he is developing the same idea a few minutes later:

[15:15] Identity is a perennial concern of the far right; it’s enemies are rootlessness and cosmopolitanism.  Identity, in this sense, is a form of communitarianism, which defines people by their race and inherited culture rather than by their individuality, their aspirations, and their talents.  It’s a kind of prison.

This is another fairly typical Meades moment, involving as it does the juxtaposition of ideas that don’t normally go together; not many people would associate the far right with communitarianism (though the starkness of the disjuncture varies depending on whether he means political communitarianism – which has quite a lot in common with libertarian socialism – or philosophical communitarianism – which seems at a cursory glance to be somewhat sympathetic to conservative viewpoints).  It’s also another example of the kind of thing that it’s initially quite easy to view as a compelling and authoritative statement, until, on reflection, other ideas start niggling away.

As a case in point: there seems to be something of a tension in the assertion that ‘identity’ as fetishised by the far right is simultaneously the enemy of both cosmopolitanism and individualism.  To call this a contradiction would be putting it a little too strongly, but cosmopolitanism (stressing as it does social cohesion) and individualism (stressing as it does…well, individualism) are not easy to conflate, and by asserting that the far right is the enemy of both of them, Meades is in danger of treating it as a kind of dustbin definition: “everything I disagree with is fascistic”.

In fact, this same tension raises it’s head again, in a sequence of comments inspired by a visit to the European Court of Human Rights:

[29:45] It is, of course, misnamed; it’s the European Court of Special Pleading.  We’re showered at birth with the promise of potential entitlements and, should those entitlements not be fulfilled, we can come here and complain, and so line the pockets of the pious shysters of the human rights industry. […] The constant injunction to celebrate vibrant diversity is moronic; it is shared qualities that should be appreciated.  To emphasise differences merely consigns people to their background, where they’ve come from: to their tribe, their caste, their religion.  It creates ghettos.

There are really two things to be said about this.  The first is that it might look less like special pleading to Meades if it was his ‘potential entitlements’ that were in question; I am inevitably quite a fan of an institution that has ruled so consistently in favour of gay and straight people receiving equal treatment under the law (if you follow the link, scroll down to get to the ECHR bit).  The second is that this passage brings the tension between Meades’ insistence that ‘it is shared qualities that should be appreciated’ and his assertion that people should be defined ‘by their individuality’ into very high relief.  If we are to celebrate the qualities we have in common, after all, it’s hard to see how this can be easily reconciled with defining people by their individuality – which is to say, by the things they do not have in common.  Of course, the way around this impasse is to acknowledge our differences, but to so do in a context that regards these differences as a source of shared pride, not as grounds for division: precisely the celebration of diversity that Meades labels moronic.

I’ve argued that Meades views himself as a polemicist, and there are clearly traces of polemic here; his comments on the European Court of Human Rights are clearly designed to provoke, and specifically to provoke people like me: job done, then.  But Meades also likes to see himself as an iconoclast, which makes his target selection here regrettable.  Attacking the ECHR is not a shocking or rebellious act, after all, since – in the UK at least – the institution is under near-constant attack, and in precisely the same terms that Meades uses here.  In his attack on the ECHR Meades is not so much a lone venturer bravely slaughtering the sacred cow as he is a late-arriving guest at the dinner party where the sacred cow – already slaughtered, butchered and roasted – is being served up with horseradish and a medley of seasonal vegetables.  I can cheerfully watch a Jonathan Meades programme while disagreeing with much of what he says – disagreeing with him is the point.  I find it harder to forgive laziness of this sort.

Jonathan Meades is frequently at his best when he’s talking about architecture, and design more generally.  This programme was no exception: the sections on Modernist architecture were interesting, and the section analysing the work of the typographer Roger Excoffon was genuinely fascinating.  For things that form such a prominent part of our design culture, typefaces are very rarely talked about, and I greatly enjoyed learning more about one that I instantly recognised, but had never really thought about as a designed artefact before.

Mistral typeface by Roger Excoffon

Probably the thing I appreciated most about the programme, though, was the sheer literary quality of the words Meades uses.  Here’s an excerpt from a description of an early visit to Alsace in 1962, when Meades would have been (if Wikipedia has his date of birth right…) 15 or 16 years old:

[54:25] We arrived at a farm high on the eastern side of the Vosges.  I remember the lunch, a sumptuous lunch, one of the finest lunches of my life: hare simmered in red wine with spices and bitter chocolate, the sauce thickened with its blood.  I remember the buttery noodles it was served with.  I remember drinking eau de vie de mirabelle for the first time in my life.  I remember a silver thread in the far distance – the Rhine – and beyond it, on it’s right bank, an indistinct spectre, a once-troubling spectre: the Black Forest, Germany.

I remember the nonagenarian great-grandmother (whose 70 year old daughter had cooked the hare).  I remember her telling me that this was the house where she had been born, and from which she had never moved.  Yet she had changed nationality four times: French, German, French, German, French.  She told me this without rancour; it was simply what had happened to her.  She hoped to die French.  She did.

That’s just really good writing: simple and affecting in the way the idyll is first evoked, then undercut (the blood in the sauce; the spectre of Germany) and then allowed to reassert itself in the long peace following the 2nd world war that gave the great-grandmother a stability in death that she did not experience in life.  It’s beautifully done (and notice the way the repeated phrase ‘I remember’ gives the excerpt a structure and a rhythm).  Truthfully, I can put up with almost any amount of fatuous comments about the ECHR so long as Jonathan Meades keeps writing like that, and so long as he keeps making intelligent TV that encourages people to think for themselves.

* – Well, I assume it’s a new series.  I haven’t seen it trailed – which I might have expected if it was a new series – and the date that appears on screen is 2011, as though this is actually a repeat.  But, on the other hand, the iPlayer lists the first transmission as occurring this year, and the papers (Guardian, Metro) reviewed it like it was new.  So, on balance, I’m guessing that it’s new, and the BBC have been uncharacteristically lax with the onscreen date.

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3 Responses to TV review: Jonathan Meades on France

  1. Pingback: Roots are for vegetables? « Don't Compromise!

  2. Thomas Thorburn says:

    I am just about to move to France, and having lived there for short periods many times, this program puts under the microscope and into some wonderful words much of what I had noticed about the country… Especially the thrid episode on debts owed to America – it’s simply brilliant, and I will be watching them all again soon.

    Really enjoyed this piece, somehow I have just discovered Meades and you obviously get the excitement and vigour he instils in his analysis much better than the lazy TV reviews I have been reading elsewhere.

    Do you know how many episodes there are in this series? I’ve have read somewhere that the 3rd is the last, but if that is so I will be bitterly disappointed!

  3. Pingback: Roots are for vegetables? | Don't Compromise

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