Jonathan Meades is back: time to sit down, shut up and learn. Meades is in my small personal pantheon of critics – James, Tynan, Hughes, Moran, Lane – who have both the intellect to make new observations and the prose to ensure they transmit. They move beyond parisitical description and have independent value. They are rare.
Meades is awesome in print but even more so on screen: there he stands, stock still behind sunglasses, doling out this impossibly authoritative, crafted stuff like a wrathful god. I quiver and keep pausing it to note down whole sentences.
His new one-off, The Joy of Essex (Tuesday BBC4), was low on joy. Where the series on France last year was freewheeling and playful, this was narrower and a little bitter. The jump-off was that the spray-tanned stereotype of Essex as vulgar and thick is – guess what? – not accurate.
Meades’s twisting of those clichés was a hoot, and typically fresh: take his description of sinister wideboys as “totally respected businessmen, with interests in the import/export, gusset therapy, leisure and glamour sectors”. Or, even better: “Look! Honest to goodness, salt of the earth, straight as the day is long cab drivers, who are personally willing to personally deliver natural justice, in person, by personally chewing the lungs out of teenage joyriders.”
This was ironically counterpointed with ravishing, precisely composed shots of the churches, chalets, factories, estuaries and houses that revealed the real Essex to be a various, curious place. Fertile Meades ground.
However, The Joy of Essex soon took a strange form – that of a quite specific historical documentary about the rash of utopian cults, collectives and paternalistic, Cadbury-style companies that spread across in Essex in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and are, if Meades is to be believed, almost entirely responsible for its present aesthetic character. Meades assessed William Booth, Frederick Charrington, Thomas Bata, Joseph Fels, the Critalls and several more, often praising the strange buildings they left behind but more concerned with biting at their patronising do-goodery.
“They are eternal Miss World contestants. They turn the other cheek. Mistake!” barked Meades at people like the Doukhobors, the “proselytising Georgian fundamentalist vegetarians” who established a garden colony in Purleigh at the turn of the century. Liberals, social credit and “the wretched Olympics” also got wild stabs in the neck.
Anti-semitism was a recurring theme, nay, hobby horse. Meades recalled a vile, nakedly Jew-hating slur thrown at the philanthropist Fels, then commented bewilderingly that this was “merely manifesting the kneejerk anti-semitism which a chapter of the English left displays to this day in its enthusiasm for Palestine and Islam”. The charge that anyone who speaks out against Israeli government policy, or rising Islamophobia in the West, must be driven by anti-semitism – support for the oppressed and marginalised elsewhere, where Judaism isn’t at issue, is presumably an elaborate cover story – is as old and dumb as the hills.
Perhaps it was just thrown in to provoke. Perhaps there was more than met the eye to his later assertion – in a section about miserable-looking areas spread with jumbled shacks and prefabs which Meades maintained were the county’s “folk art” – that “poor whites with no voice” are a group particularly in need of protection. The feeling that an unknowable percentage of Meades’s shows always flies over one’s head makes it hard to tell.
Those sudden, silly forays into contemporary politics were a reminder, though, that the Meades mystique normally benefits from obscure subject matter. Come cold to an architect, place or bygone artistic movement and you’re easily seduced by Meades’s reading of it. He’s winning at a game of his own devising. And his vituperative dismissals are more easily enjoyed when the target is inanimate: Poundbury in Dorset being a “Thomas Hardy theme park for slow learners”, as opposed to gay socialist Tom Driberg, “the country’s foremost spermophage”.
On the other hand, the section on designer Arthur Mackmurdo was a thrilling example of Meades’s ability to stand back from a subject, flick aside accepted wisdom and poke confidently at a fatal weakness. Mackmurdo is thought of as an important influence on Art Nouveau; balls, said Meades, opining that his “effortfully eccentric” work was prescient but not excellent, that his architecture delivered “what looked like the most banal buildings of the day after tomorrow”.
Never heard of Mackmurdo? Meades had a wider point: we shouldn’t let hindsight make us too set on the concepts of influence and innovation because art, like history generally, isn’t pre-destined. What looks like clear causation, of battles won by the only side that could ever have won them, might easily have been different had luck leant the other way. Lesson learned. Meades has an endless supply.
Were I offered the TV equivalent of a last meal, however, my choice would be another of the medium’s great explainers: Howard Goodall, sitting side-on at an electric piano telling me how music works, singing lustily, eyes twinkling. A jolly housemaster to Meades’s irascible history wonk, Goodall has a grand new project. His Story of Music (Saturdays BBC2) spends six weeks telling us how the complex beast that is modern music came to be. It’s accessible, enlightening factual telly par excellence.
Episode one could have been a dry warm-up, going back as it did to cavemen singing for navigation, clunky Egyptian horns and the very earliest harmonies. But Goodall’s playful eclecticism was there in the opening theme, which is his orchestral arrangement of Pokerface. Halfway through it segues energetically into the original, in case you’d not twigged. Bruno Mars popped up later when Goodall needed a simple melody for his illustration of early notation.
Mixing pop and plainchant is the nearest Goodall gets to a gimmick. Where most other presenters would take the opportunity to fly around Europe at licence-payers’ expense on a gig like this, Goodall stays in a sparse studio, laying out the building blocks using choirs or his own keyboard. He thinks his knowledge and enthusiasm are enough. Joyful moments like him banging out the composer Pérotin’s innovative (for the 1200s) chords – Goodall accompanied the most adventurous one with a Frankie Howerd eyeballing of the camera – showed he is right.