mon 22/04/2024

Jonathan Meades on France, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Jonathan Meades on France, BBC Four

Jonathan Meades on France, BBC Four

Enriching and idiosyncratic voyage around both the history of Lorraine and Meades himself

Jonathan Meades: 'the Simon Schama you only occasionally want to punch'

Jonathan Meades’s trawl through France began with the breezy theme tune from ‘Allo ‘Allo taking an unceremonious tumble from the turntable, signalling an instant war on cliché which continued with the promise of “no Piaf, no Dordogne, no ooh la la, no checked tablecloths”. The opening was quintessentially Meades – arch, parodic, iconoclastic, ever so slightly self-mocking. If Rick Stein was watching he’d have suffered a severe case of the shakes.

This was an unvarnished portrait of a nation scrubbed clean of its lipstick, powder and paint.

In the first of three films dissecting the nation that has become “his second country”, Meades turned his gaze on Lorraine in the north eastern corner of France, a region shaped by its proximity to – and indeed for long periods it being part of – Germany; we were told the tale of a woman who had lived in the same house her entire life and yet changed nationality four times.

Meades produced more quotable lines in his allotted hour than almost any other TV talking head I can think of

Little wonder this was essentially a thesis on national identity in all its forms (mostly ugly), but like Off-Kilter, his excellent and unsparing recent series on Scotland, it was as much a voyage around our presenter as a travelogue. This was not only partly a personal history but, as the subtitle of this first episode - "Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopaedia" – suggested, a diffuse and eccentric one. Meades never talks down but he doesn’t talk straight either. He throws ideas into the air like so much confetti in the hope that at least some of the pieces flutter down to find a home. It can occasionally be frustrating but is far preferable to being treated to the sub-CBBC witterings that these days pass for a presentational style in most adult factual output.

The first episode was a sprawling history of the region (and France, and Europe, and art, and culture, and Meades) told in brief chapters and through potted biographies. Traversing the north-east Meades contemplated art nouveau in Nancy (“a Versailles for the people”), Mistral typography, Alsatian cooking and Le Corbusier. He noted that the home region of “celebrity witch” Joan of Arc was a magnet for mystics and animists. A sacred hill’s supposedly supernatural qualities were dryly dismissed as being attributable to the “marvels of geological happenstance”.

In steering away from the obvious he tended to accentuate the negative. The fact that de Gaulle - for whom “Lorraine stood for France” - chose to live in the area clearly constituted a major black mark. Historical rather than topical in their focus, invariably his thoughts came back to conflict and architecture. He pitted the post-war industrial boom against “social catastrophe and war after war (played four, lost four)”. He traced France’s far right nationalist streak as a straight line running from L'Action Francaise movement in the late 1800s (a pro-monarchist, pro-Vichy, pro-Mussolini group) to Front National and Jean-Marie Le Pen (who was a member of L‘Action Francaise as a young man). Nationalism, he said, was essentially a masochistic animal which “stays wounded and, like Philoctetes, its wounds will never heal”.

Although capable of the occasional descent into cliché (“there is only one school; the school of talent”) Meades still produced more quotable lines in his allotted hour than almost any other TV talking head I can think of. The arrival of Futurism in Ronchamp was celebrated as “the conjunction of France and tomorrow”. There existed on the cusp of France and Germany an “architectural apartheid” which discouraged a fusion of styles. The war memorial in Verdun, where 300,000 lives were lost in 1916, was furiously described as “a 140-metre long betrayal of the dead”.

As romance and sentiment were being knocked for six we learned a lot of new things and also saw familiar subjects from fresh angles. Standing in a series of slightly surreal and incongruous locations, looking as though the coat hanger was still wedged in the back of his coat, Meades appeared more than ever like the Simon Schama you only occasionally want to punch. Self parody has become an ingrained part of his charm. Of local politician and (of course) nationalist Maurice Barrès, the man wearing the silly shades and knowing smirk said: “Much of what he wrote was absolute tosh, but he wrote it captivatingly”. Was this a playful little dig at himself? If so, it was misplaced.    


I thought the personal material was less sucesssful this time - after 'Father to the Man' is there much else to be said about the matter? We know you live there now Jonathan, but less about you and more about Strasbourg, please! And don't slag off Schama: he's got this one right:

never heard anyone defend OAS gunslingers..Meades is politically loathsome & aesthetically decayed; that postmodern sauciness is old hat these days

I must admit that I was gobsmacked to hear this decadent person sticking up for the OAS whom he regarded as hard done by, and I notice that at no time did he refer to the endorsement by General Massu of torture on Algerian suspects by the French army. There wasn't a word about the Algerian Harkis who had fought for the French side during the War of Independence and had been obliged to emigrate to France after the war; these have since been socially marginalised by the French. In the meantime I hear that there is a possible documentary in the offing about the killing of over 200 unarmed Algerians in Paris in October 1961. This seems to have passed Jonathan Meades by - or was it just "un détail de l'histoire"?

Does anyone know the french singer who closed out the hour as people were relocating?

Jonathan Meades programme on France was one of the worst programmes BBC has ever done. It was full of many times uncromprehensible jargon, whilst its presenter was often biased and confused, supporting OAS, commenting distafully on French presidents. A great shame to spend the money of viewers, whilst the Organisation cuts cheap, and nice programmes e.g.the short story from radio4.

One goof : in the documentary we suddenly here a Flemish song ("Ik zie zo gere mijn duivenkot"), which means "I love my dovecot"... It immediately struck me as I am Flemish. Did Meades really think that this was a German song or what ? This is a goof that is immediately clear to me, but probably not to British people, so I wonder how many other mistakes are in the series.

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