Jonathan Meades on France (BBC4)
Rachel Cooke is mystified by a tour of tenuous connections in the Alsace.
I think my long-standing crush on Jonathan Meades - it's an intellectual crush, obviously; I certainly don't pine to peel off his Paul Smith socks and give him a foot massage - is finally on the wane. His new series, Jonathan Meades on France (Wednesdays, 9pm), is, like those that came before it, sui generis: eclectic, challenging, weird. And yes, as usual, Meades assumes a certain intelligence on the part of his audience: if you had to give his brand of documentary-making a name, you would call it "I-don't-suffer-fools TV". Only this time, he's gone too far. Call me dumbo, but the flattery I used to feel at being taken so seriously has given way to utter confusion. During the first film, I kept hoping for a narrative - for a kind hand, as it were, in the small of my back. But, no. "Tant pis!" his expression said, as he leapt rhetorically in the direction of his next subject.
This series is about an "occluded" France, and will therefore involve no strings of onions, no red-checked tablecloths and no street markets (cue a shot of Meades standing, straight as a prize courgette, in the aisle of a chilly hypermarché). Instead, he intends to talk about . . . what, exactly? In the first film, everything began with the letter "V": Verdun, Verlaine, vitrine (as in lèche-vitrine, or window shopping), Voltaire, Vosges . . .
On and on he went, flipping through his material as if through a Rolodex. For me, this involved two kinds of frustration. The first was that just as I began to get interested in something - the 1960s bombing campaigns of the terrorist organisation OAS, say, which wanted to stop Algeria's independence, or Roger Excoffon's iconic 1953 typeface, Mistral (Meades's description of Mistral was like listening to difficult poetry) - he would move on. The second was that - yes, I know - I couldn't help but want him to talk about food.
Back in the day, as you will perhaps remember, Meades was a fantastic restaurant critic, with the love handles to prove it. Then he went carb-free - or something free - and these days he looks like a pink Nigel Lawson: slender but somehow baggy and purposeless, like a deflated football. Personally, I miss the pig of old. In the hypermarché, the camera's eye fell briefly on a tin of lapin chasseur and I found myself longing for him to deconstruct its meaning (impossible to imagine tinned rabbit stew in a British supermarket).
Later, for a few scant seconds, he stood on a hillside in the Vosges and talked of a feast he'd eaten with a local family when he was 15: hare in red wine with buttery noodles, eau de vie de mirabelle. From far off, I heard a tiny oink and felt excited. But then the moment passed and he was back on the Douaumont ossuary, or something (he thinks - and who am I to disagree? - that Léon Azéma's design at Verdun compares unfavourably to Lutyens's Thiepval Memorial to the Somme).
Meades is at his best when he is talking about architecture: he is, as he has no doubt always secretly wanted to be, the 21st-century Ian Nairn (I will do a Meades myself here and assume that you know who Ian Nairn was; if you don't, you are really missing out). But architecture isn't the main event in this series. The first film, in as much as you can ever sum up Meades, was about nationalism and the strange, mystical way that Alsace-Lorraine - all the "V's" were Alsace-connected - is regarded by the right. Its proximity to Germany and that country's sometime ownership of it seems only to make it the more French in its eyes. Slowly, he built up the idea of France's collective forgetfulness, whether we're talking baguettes (from Vienna, originally), or the war (another "V" - Vichy).
Right now, though, I am unable to tell you much more than this. For Meades's fondness for lists, for tenuous connections and fleeting explication - a fondness now apparently entering its most extreme and minimalist phase - has generated a thick fog in which I am doomed to wander for a few days yet.
He does leave you with a lot of stuff to - in the old-fashioned phrase - look up. In the long run, this is no doubt highly educational. But as a television experience, it's about as satisfying as tinned rabbit.