Journeys with a camera

Jonathan Meades is irritating, but this is a ravishing, quirky travel documentary


People either love the writer Jonathan Meades, or they hate him. I . . . Oh no! The thought now occurs that I'm not in either camp. I suppose my relationship with him is best described as love-hate. His meaty, porcine face inspires in me a kind of dread; I suspect him of a particularly horrible kind of snobbery, and contrarians of his ilk - "Caravan parks! Fantastic in their way!" - are always annoying. Then again, most of the time, I find myself agreeing with him. Like him, I have a special interest, bordering on the weird, in the stuff that surrounds us: I, too, am as fascinated by ginnels, nettled railway sidings and run-down sheds as I am by Gothic cathedrals.

His latest series, Jonathan Meades: abroad again (Wednesdays, 7pm), revisits his fondness for these little pieces of the vernacular via some clever, insinuating film-making. I watched part one (9 May) and, once my ear had become accustomed to his android delivery (his sentences might be baroque, but he delivers them in a voice like a yawn), I was captivated - though the real source of wonder, of course, is that this kind of authored essay still gets commissioned at all. I mean, the viewer is required to concentrate quite hard for an entire 50 minutes.

Abroad Again springs from Meades's boyhood, when he travelled around England with his biscuit salesman father in a Morris Traveller. Once at their destination, Meades was given sixpence and expected to amuse himself till sandwich-and-Thermos hour. The boy passed the time by looking and, because he was so small, he was ignorant of aesthetic hierarchies and "unencumbered by anything save curiosity". He was a "midget autodidact" who could soon distinguish Stockbroker Tudor from Henry Tudor without ever believing one to be superior to the other. This is a sensibility that has endured into adulthood. Meades was only half joking when he denounced "place-ism" - the idea, say, that Ullswater is more admirable than a stagnant pond in Scunthorpe. He sees, if not the beauty, then the charm of places that others despise, and he can bring them wonderfully to life: mossy thatch is "seborrhoeic", industrial cranes like the forms of "extinct birds". Out there on the highways and byways, Meades reveals unexpectedly lyrical, even Wordsworthian, powers of description.

But this is much more than a spotter-ish tour of the flinty walls of West Country market towns. By mixing the story of his childhood with the story of how urban and suburban landscapes are formed, he provides both snappy cultural history and wry comment on contemporary mores.

He talked of water-meadows, unique to chalk downland, as the camera journeyed through the silvery water beneath him, reducing his Woody Allen features to a distant blur. As a child, he'd known a "drowner" - a man whose job it was to irrigate stretches of grassland, and one acquainted with the mysteries of eels. Out of nowhere came a shot of Meades goofing around with a stick. "No eels were harmed in the making of this film," said a subtitle. "Eel played by stick." The huge social changes that have taken place in the past 50 years were thus brilliantly telescoped into a single image. It takes nerve to pull off this kind of visual gag - and a proper, and lately unusual, respect for your audience.

I still think Meades is mighty irritating, and his sneer was starting to pall by the end. But his ideas, and the ravishing look of his film, most definitely were not.

Contrast this with Gavin Stamp's Orient Express (Tuesdays, 7.15pm). Stamp, another historian of architecture, is one of the posh experts so beloved by Channel 5 (Brian Sewell is the other) and, with his League of Gentlemen nose, he is even more porcine than Meades. As a presenter, he is horribly querulous (in front of an Austrian cathedral, he stamped his foot at the Henry Moore spoiling his view). Still, in one sense, he's right to feel aggrieved.

Travel documentaries like this one hail from the commissioning department that time forgot. Jaunty music plays, and Stamp carries, by way of a prop, an ancient suitcase with leather corners that is patently empty. All the luxury train travel in the world can't compensate a man for being made to look a fool.

Pick of the week

12 May, 9pm, BBC2
Daphne du Maurier's supposed affair with Gertrude Lawrence.

Driving Me Crazy
14 May, 9pm, ITV1
John Sergeant mildly rants about four-wheel-drive cars. Hooray!

Imagine . . .
15 May, 10.35pm, BBC1
Alan Yentob tells the story of the Klimt paintings looted by the Nazis.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?