Wednesday, May 16, 2007

TV Review - Jonathan Meades: Abroad Again



JONATHAN MEADES: ABROAD AGAIN
BBC2, 16.5.07

Television is not art. It is craft. Or is it? Sometimes one is tempted otherwise. Jonathan Meades is a tempter.

The present writer has tried to persuade the broadsheets’ arts pages to run a piece on this so-far unimprovable series; one hopes that those who hand out TV gongs display less indifference and ignorance. While not quite the equal of last week’s marvellous autobiographical episode, this again is one of those programmes that seems so good that one questions whether most TV is getting worse or whether a handful of programme-makers (Molly Dineen is another example) are getting better.

In ‘On the Brandwagon’, Meades’ lengthy and many-coloured train of thought gets up steam near Montpellier on a hot night in 1985 - where he had to lie his Englishness away to witness the Heysel disaster on a pub TV – and speeds up to negotiate many curves of logic in order to mow down the ‘regeneration’ industry. First in Liverpool where this strange late 20th-century gibberish first took root in the UK, and then nationwide. This horrid nonsense, he argues, has cheapened modernist architecture and demeaned the perception of the urban environment. At a time when one is ankle-deep in dissembled flummery about Olympic ‘regeneration’ of East London, this onslaught is especially timely.

I speak from experience. Your correspondent lives in Newport, a dreary South Wales town pathetically trying a city-reinvention where people of influence genuinely believe that an undistinguished but very large pedestrian river bridge will ‘rebrand’ the place. Rather like several equally vacuous, meaningless and useless erections before it, as though they also might guarantee everyone a job, a thousand flowers blooming and (I may be exaggerating here) Julia Roberts offering a blow to every male over 18. People of influence believed in those structures, too. It may not surprise the perceptive to learn that none of them has diminished the town centre’s incurable tawdriness, or occasioned a social or economic revolution. Julia’s not turned up either: funny, that.

It is this contagious fallacy, as shallow as it is lucrative (like motivational speaking and management consultancy), that Meades attacks, and also how it has become integral to the thinking of the intellectually idle, overpaid and nepotistic. It is a cancer of urban life, ignored or shrugged off by most, until the rates go up, until the town is defaced; it takes a surgeonly mind to spot it. For which service the eloquent Meades must inevitably face accusations of nay-saying and cynicism – but not from this quarter, and more power to him for it.

‘On The Brandwagon’ is one of Meades’ is more visually aggressive and assertive than usual and lacks a little for it – at one point he briefly assumes three fictional roles, reassuming the actorly profession he trained for at RADA - but this excitable M.O. presumably is an attempt to keep pace with the presenter’s mercilessly accurate autopsy of the discursive fraudulence which supposedly legitimatizes gravy-train urban vandalism, venality and vanity, this absurd late 20th-century phenomenon of civic life. ‘Opportunity pathway’: ‘regeneration community’, are just two jesterly pastiches in a searing PR parody, reminding us that such irredeemable bollocks is cheap and easy but also largely a province of Anglophonic countries. Nonetheless, he reserves especial scorn for the supposedly iconic and ‘regenerative’ but actually very very ugly Guggenheim museum of Frank Gehry that the good burghers of Bilbao in Spain allowed to have plonked on them (nice clip of Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goicoechea’s famous 1984 foul on Maradona, by the way).

Meades could have been on thin ice here; ‘look at me!’ is his verbal shorthand for Gehry’s nasty hulk and thousands like it. I have heard some say the same of him, but director Colin Murray has Meades in fewer frames than usual – a subtle and clever touch. Meades’ argument has legs up to its neck, but I must take issue with his calumnisation of the Catalan Sergio Calatrava, whose acceptance of show-off commissions doesn’t stop him proving that he is a very imaginative, modernist architect; in much the same way that Meades makes imaginative, modernist TV programmes.

‘It could have been an abattoir,’ Meades charges, rightly, when discussing the Guggenheim. Its only purpose is to be seen. It could be argued that Meades, canted forward and inscrutable as he strolls in trademark suit and bins, is, like the buildings he damns, a brand that stands only for itself. To which I would contend that if he is a brand, he is one that brings much more stimulation to life than any number of ‘riverside developments’ of ‘overpriced flats and shops selling useless knick-knacks’. He reminds us, constantly, that the ‘regeneration’ industry has brought little of substantial material benefit to the locations upon which it has been visited, usually in direct disproportion to that which said structures were supposed to bestow.

Whereas Meades, if he says ‘look at me’ (at 7pm on BBC 2? Come on), could, by contrast, improve us all.

TV as art? Hmm. I’m tempted.

9 comments:

patrick said...

It was very good, wasn't it. There's an interview with Meades available for download at a site called "little atoms" by the way - www.littleatoms.com.

(I'm nothing to do with them, by the way, and I'm not seeking to plug them).

Julian said...

Nothing wrong with Newport that a small thermo nuclear device wouldn't sort out. Yes the town planning (not sure there is or has been any for the last 3 decades) does leave much to be desired.

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