Saturday, 25 February 2012

Why I don't want to smash smarty-pants Jonathan Meades's face in

Jonathan Meades reached the apogee of his fame a few weeks back when Harry Hill featured two clips from the formerly fat man’s latest documentary series on TV Burp. Hill’s purpose in featuring the clips was to poke fun at the fact that Meades’s scripts often totter on the very edge of pseudish impenetrability. He’s the sort of deliberately obtuse clever-dick intellectual any decent man would horsewhip, should their paths happen to cross.

But I actually did once meet Meades, about 15 years ago, when he was one of the guests on a fittingly obscure late-night talk show I was editing, and I pumped his hand enthusiastically and told him that I loved his programmes. I still do. For a start, I get a kick out of his presentational style, which is, in effect, a massive V-sign to all those wearyingly enthusiastic front-of-camera documentary-making intellectuals who seem to be convinced (or who have been convinced by their producers) that their typical viewer is a knuckle-dragging moron who will switch over to Dancing on Ice unless they wave their arms about, never address the camera unless in motion, use insultingly simplified language and emphasise all the wrong words and syllablyes, and try to relate everything they’re talking about to aspects of popular contemporary culture to “bring the subject alive” for the droolers at home.

Meades doesn’t go in for any of that nonsense. In fact, he makes no attempt to "connect" with the viewer. He often wears dark glasses (okay for moody rock stars, but a presentational solecism in factual TV). He usually stands stock-still when addressing the camera, invariably sports a black suit (very unfriendly!), uses hifalutin’ language designed to be read rather than ingested on the hoof, never modulates his tone of contemptuous irony, and eschews facial expressions of any kind.

I’m sure you could get away with this in France, where (as Meades pointed out in his most recent programme) undue deference is habitually paid to intellectuals, no matter how pretentious and silly. But in Britain, where intellectuals are about as welcome as they were in Pol Pot's Cambodia? 

So why aren’t we all gibbering and screeching like gibbons, and hurling ordure at our TV sets whenever Meades appears? Three reasons, I supect. First, Meades – strangely for a cultural commentator – makes absolutely no concessions to televisual fashion. Second, he flatters us by assuming we’ll be able to grasp what he’s saying (and by giving the impression  he doesn't much care if we can't). Third, he says lots and lots of interesting and original things. In the last programme of his three-part BBC 4 series on France, which ended last week, he was fascinating on the reason for the civilised nature of French city centres (apparently, having to commute to work is a sign of failure, so all the “problem” elements of society are confined to the suburbs, where the middle classes can safely ignore them); the inability of the French to “get” American culture, despite being both fascinated and repelled by it; and on why de Gaulle granted Algeria independence (he was terrified of France being over-run by Muslim immigrants – which, of course, is exactly what his policy guranteed). Four, despite his show-off braininess, Meades lives on our planet – popular culture isn’t a mystery to him. Five, he’s funny (his comments on Mitterand and Giscard D’Estaing had me hooting, but in a non-gibbonish way). Six – and this matters – he’s enormously entertaining, aided by visuals which are invariably arresting. And seven, he is gloriously, defiantly inaccessible.

Of course, there are irritations. His Dawkinsian hatred of religion rapidly becomes tedious. And every now and then one longs for a more generous leavening of non-ironic comments: we only really get a sense of his moral outlook when he goes into attack mode.

But I’ll happily forgive the former fatty (he lost a third of his bodyweight in a year after becoming enormously fat during a fifteen-year stint as restaurant critic for the Times) these foibles for one simple reason: he invariably makes one look at the world afresh.

When I met Meades that one time, he was the absolute opposite of what I'd expected: very self-aware, friendly, and not at all self-assured – at least, concerning his TV career. He was convinced the BBC’s then Head of TV wasn’t a fan, and he was probably right – it was all about yoof and the uneducated back then. And, of course, BBC 4 – Meades’s natural home - didn’t exist in 1997 (it’s telling that the executive Meades was worried about has devised a BBC cost-cutting strategy which leaves the abysmal BBC 3 untouched, while BBC 4 – the best thing the BBC does – is to lose part of its funding: maybe the exec is still out to get Meades).

The first two parts of Meades’s series on France (typically, entitled Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopedia) are available on iPlayer – I’ve no idea why the third one isn’t there. They can be found here.


  1. Excellent post. One of the bizarre sights in the series is when Meades suddenly pops up on camera wearing a very large silver Madame de Pompadour wig. In his previous programme [set in the Baltic States] he was invariably sitting in front of a plate with a solitary herring or hanging around in dark forest with his shades and suit. I haven't the foggiest about what he is trying to convey, but find him very enjoyable? There is a parody of Meades by Craig Brown in the current Private Eye ["A-Z of Children's Television"] in case you missed it.

  2. I've just read JOnathan Meades's A-Z of Children's Television in the latest Private Eye, SDG - classic Craig Brown and absolutely spot on. Thanks for the tip!