Outside in


A story, probably apocryphal, has it that when Jeremy Paxman was writing Through the Volcanoes he asked a colleague what he should call the book. It was, he said, a very personal account of his recent trek, a journey of self-discovery. The colleague looked thoughtful: "What about Ego Trip?" On the first of John Peel's Sounds of the Suburbs (Channel 4, Saturday), the guru of family values, formerly the keeper of the sacred flame of pop, drove to Lanarkshire toying along the way with titles for the guidebook he was not going to write and pre-emptively settling on Talking Bollocks in the Trossachs.

He didn't, not generally, but it was a close-run thing. The programme is a brief 25 minutes but still long enough to allow so many digressions from his mission to explain the roots of nineties pop that you wonder if Peel is going to get anywhere with it. On a wander through the teenage haunts of Sean Dixon, formerly, we were told solemnly, of the Soup Dragons, now of High Fidelity, the singer pointed out the maternity hospital where Sheena Easton was born. This led Peel into a reverie on his former colleague who once went out with her and what a lucky man he was. In a fish and chip shop Peel sampled a deep-fried Mars bar and offered bites to his film crew (who should surely have been concentrating on correcting their appalling hand-held camera work). Finally he visited Glenbuck and the memorial to "the genius, the legend, the man" - not Elvis but Bill Shankly, the former Liverpool manager. As a man pushed a wheely-bin in the background, Peel emoted heavily.

From this mud of self-indulgence, Peel wrestled a thesis: that real pop music emerged from urban decline, not national self-confidence. Motherwell was therefore the salon des refuses of the "Britpop ninnies". From the poisoned industrial wastelands sprang the Delgados and their record label, Chemikal Underground, which, by investing in the local economy, echoed the enlightened self-interest of the industrialist Robert Owen, who built the utopian workers' village of New Lanark. The argument was loose but at least made sense of the Shankly detour, which moved Peel because the mining village he was born in had been razed. You need a hell-hole to escape from if you are going to dazzle on either the turf or vinyl.

Jarvis Cocker's superior three-part Channel 4 series Journey into the Outside with Jarvis Cocker ended on Tuesday with his thesis on outsider art, severely marked when he first presented it as a student at St Martin's, still unproven. As a vehicle for Cocker, however, it was extremely effective, revealing Pulp's weakling star as a self-effacing yet determined reporter. Again, we got to know a little more of his habits than we needed. The sick on the lavatory floor of the cross-channel ferry was the low ebb, but there were others, such as the sequence in which he prepared his "look" for the next day in a motel room. The naivety was on display to show that, despite his success, he was still an outsider himself - although the creator of the so-called Miracle Cross Garden may have rumbled Cocker when he suggested he might have the $25 million asking price for his junkyard of old washing machines daubed with "You will die".

The series found enough outsider art to fill the Millennium Dome. The Frenchmen of week one were recluses who decorated their homes with debris and broken crockery. Culture's self-proclaimed saviour, Chomo, now 91, was so protective of his "cellular art" that he wouldn't even allow the cameras in to see it. The Americans of the second programme were obsessed by mass production, building houses out of bottles, facading their homes with empty beer cans. Or else they were cut-price mystics such as Howard Finster, persuaded to paint "sacred art" on the instructions of a talking finger on his right hand. The final programme took us to India and Nek Chand's secret rock garden of 2,000 sculptures, discovered when the authorities came to clear the forest where it was hidden. The garden is secret no more and is now the second most visited sight in India after the Taj Mahal.

There was, in the end, no accounting for any of this. Were these bizarre kingdoms - the abiding image is of gothic turrets - pathological responses to an over-cluttered world, elaborate "keep out" signs or, well, Art? Cocker rarely hazarded any critical judgement, bestowing instead his general approval on anything that would never appear inside a gallery. Did he think the Watts Towers were actually any good, or merely that it was good they were there at all? Nevertheless, while we were watching, Cocker's outside journeys certainly took us in - in both senses.

We seem to be witnessing a renaissance in the signed documentary, an old and honourable form that once bore the names Philpott, Cameron and Whicker. The trend is to be welcomed, but producers must take care lest they become mere advertisements for their presenters' charms.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.