Review: “The Jonathan Meades Collection”

I was introduced to the works of Jonathan Meades a few years after I moved to Britain. I didn’t find out his name until much later; however, his deadpan wit, his eloquent and erudite delivery, and even the fact that he wore a dark suit on every occasion made a deep impression on me. The effect was further enhanced by the first scene I saw him in: after speaking for a few moments, he chased after a Belgian horse with a chainsaw. It was a marked contrast to American documentary makers, who all seemed to be progenitors of an almost twerpy earnestness. In retrospect, I wonder if his brilliant programme about Belgium planted a seed in my mind which germinated years later. For example, I gobbled up Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost” upon its release and it remains one of my most cherished books. Rene Magritte is by far and away my favourite artist. Furthermore, when I had the opportunity to live in Antwerp for a time, I took it. Belgium’s history and culture remains one of my preoccupations; based upon my experiences, I definitely agree with Mr. Meades’ premise that Magritte was a realist whose works described a surreal country.

Jonathan MeadesRecently, my sister suggested I watch Jonathan Meades’ programmes about France, in which he reiterated Thomas Jefferson’s thesis that everyone has two countries, their own and France, and then took the viewer on a whirlwind tour of French culture. When he appeared on screen reciting entries from an arbitrary encyclopaedia (whose topics all began with the letter “V”), much thinner than I remembered but mostly the same, I shouted, “I know this man!”

The BBC has facilitated my reacquaintance with Mr. Meades with their 3 disc compendium, entitled simply, “The Jonathan Meades Collection”. Thanks to this set, one can not only re-visit his outstanding Belgian documentary, but also the fine work he’s done in finding the extraordinary that lay beneath the surface of the seemingly ordinary.

For example, one of his earliest programmes featured a tour of the Severn Valley: in it, Mr. Meades surveys the ramshackle homes which constitute some of the residences there. To the untrained eye, these modest houses may seem haphazard and their crooked architecture a sign of poverty: to Mr. Meades’ more discerning gaze, they are the legacy of a fascinating history and represent ingenuity and innovation. As he says while pushing a cart laden full of power tools through a local DIY store: “DIY” in the modern sense isn’t really a “do it yourself” job. Kits and instructions ensure that the builder need do little or no thinking. The bricolage of the Severn homes represents an altogether more elevated level of improvisation.

It’s not just the subject matter and his view of it that marks Mr. Meades as unique: for example, I burst out laughing when one of the Severn residents was interviewed, because rather than directly asking the questions, Mr. Meades was invariably doing something in the distant background, whether it was looking in windows or just pacing idly.

His preoccupation with innovation continued with a film that took a look at the “future not being what it used to be”: this provides ample examples of his light comedic touch, including his deployment of a peculiar device to detect buildings that were commissioned by Tony Benn and an introduction that was directly copied from “The Terminator”. The programme begins with the sparks of electricity and bright flash that mark a time travel event from the Schwarzenegger classic, and Mr. Meades first appears, naked, hunched over in a pit, before getting up and quickly donning his famous suit. He suggests that our view of the future has become much smaller over time: not just in terms of architecture, but also our technology. This was said many years before the netbook and iPad; he was remarkably prescient.

His treatment of subjects which aren’t necessarily dear to his heart is also fascinating. One area where he and I differ is that he is an atheist (indeed, he is a Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association) while I am a committed Anglican: nevertheless, he approached the subject of church architecture with such verve and brio that even the most ardent believer couldn’t fail to be charmed. He suggests at the beginning of the programme that God is a human invention, yet scattered throughout the film are signs of biblical miracles: college students have bread and fishes multiply before them in a canteen, a plague of plastic frogs appears beneath Mr. Meades’ feet at a fairground. He is merciless in his description of the layout and architecture of modern churches, some of which represent now out-of-date fads set in aspic; the film makes it clear that nineteenth century and earlier churches are less absurd. Yet, even amidst the sacred he never takes himself too seriously: for example, on several occasions, he has to leap up repeatedly to get a look inside the structures he wishes to survey. Each bounce is captured on film, indicating a childlike enthusiasm that the rest of his demeanour belies. He later arranges for a choirboy to sing Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” in order to reinforce his thesis that God is a Goth.

Sometimes Mr. Meades delves into subject matters which have genuine and direct relevance to current affairs: his documentary about fast food is a good example. He recites a litany of statistics which indicate how the consumption of fast food is not only linked to galloping obesity rates but also to crime. However, he not only achieves the desired results through words and facts, but also by utilising stunning imagery: he uses pictures of fast food which make it as unappealing as it should be. We see the grease glistening, the insalubriousness of fried meats oozes off the screen; if we could smell the food, no doubt we would feel quite unwell. He rams the point home by showing how a “traditional British banger” is made: he begins with a condom acquired in a pub restroom, and then informs us, nauseatingly, about the low quality meat, chemicals and even excrement which will fill the sheath. Speaking for myself, I never wanted to set foot in a Wetherspoon’s or roadside cafe again.

All told, Mr. Meades is an outstanding filmmaker and documentarian; it seems a pity that he is not seen as a national treasure in quite the same way as England’s other famous eccentrics such as Stephen Fry or Alan Bennett. There is no doubting however that this set, along with his recent works, provides much needed assistance to the cause.

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