Jonathan Meades: The Joy of Essex, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews
Jonathan Meades: The Joy of Essex, BBC Four
Virtuoso trip through an unknown Essex by thuggish telly-auteur
For a man who lives in an agreeable region of France, Jonathan Meades grew strangely passionate in the course of this fascinating excursion around Essex. The thuggish-looking narrator travelled by small, functional Toyota rather than Magical Mystery Tour-style charabanc, though the latter would have been perfectly apt for tales of Cockneys seeking escape in the county described by one sneering commentator as "the dustbin of London".
The word "Essex" arrives dragging heaps of clanking debris attached to its rear bumper, and Meades began his odyssey with an extended demolition of Essex-related preconceptions (the county having suffered badly from what he termed "Place-ism"). Things we would not be seeing included pink stretch limos, "diamond geezers and geezer-ettes", "reality TV cretins", the "friends of Richard Desmond", "hair extension executives" and much more. No TOWIE here.
He ended on an elegiac note, lamenting the slow death of 'the People's Essex'
Instead, Meades - continuing his splendidly fruitful laison with director Francis Hanly - had unearthed a largely forgotten yet, when he delved into the details, a remarkably still-present alternative Essex. Sometimes Meades's unforgivingly literate approach sounds as if he's taunting the medium of television and goading it to take him on, but the contours of his argument emerged steadily.
From the late 19th century to the eve of World War Two, the county was a teeming breeding ground for all manner of collectivist, Utopian, socialistic and morally-improving experiments. The Salvation Army's founder William Booth established a 3,000-acre "land and industrial colony" at Hadleigh, to reform "broken men of bad habits" with fresh air, hard work, and the prospect of profiting from their labours when the colony's produce was shipped by barge to the London markets. The labourers themselves were frequently shipped off to the colonies, possibly involuntarily. Frederick Charrington, from the brewing clan, forsook the family's staple earner and created a teetotal retreat on Osea Island in the Blackwater estuary (whose tidally submersible causeway featured eerily in the film The Woman in Black).
Meades rattled off a list of cult-like startups which had flourished briefly - New Harmony, the Village Society, the Redemption Society - and detoured to the sinister-sounding Q Camp at Hawkspur Green, where the homeless and the drug-addicted experienced "tough love". They may even have been subjected to the libido-liberating Frigidity Machine, created by Theodore Faithfull, grandfather of dowager-chantoosie Marianne.
In Thaxted, the anti-semitic priest Conrad Noel, also a supporter of Fenianism and Marxism, revived a slew of pre-industrial folk ritual and lore, to Meades's disgust. "Liberals want everyone to be like them and to be grateful to them," he fumed. "Utopias are almost by definition bound to fail."
He was, as usual, especially illuminating about architecture, unearthing some fine specimens of an English Modernist style which, he argued, was more potent than is generally supposed. He took us to the "paternalistic Utopia" created by Czech shoe magnate Tomas Bata in East Tilbury, with its boldly- conceived houses, clinic, community centre and factory. The workers' dwellings built by Crittall Windows in 1918, Meades mused, may have been Britain's first Modernist houses (Bata's disused factory, pictured above).
Yet while he admired such specimens of energy and vision, Meades also hates the regulated, the mundane, and being made to join in with things. "Accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons," he snapped, sounding like a classical music critic. As for the Crittall collective ethic, this meant that "the full horror of team spirit was enjoyed by all." The kind of central planning ethos that brought post-war monstrosities like Basildon and Harlow to Essex triggered this fusillade: "Planners are people who, like scum-of-the-earth politicians, are life's prefects. Social and/or emotional cripples whose mission is to tell us what to do, and what not to do."
He ended on a sorrowful, elegiac note, lamenting the slow death of "the People's Essex" - or even "an Essex on the sly, a Cockney Shangri-La" - and its eccentric, characterful shacks, smallholdings and rickety wooden bungalows. All of this is being steadily picked off by centralised regulation and, no doubt, corporate self-interest.
"Everything decomposes, everything fades, rusts, rots," he brooded, gazing out across silent mudflats. "Everything returns to the immemorial ooze." A pair of legs protruded surreally from the mud, in ironic echo perhaps of the "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone" from Shelley's Ozymandias. The lone and level sands stretched far away.
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