Review

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The Independent Culture
It may seem rather perverse, but the most engaging feature of Jonathan Meades's television performances is how concertedly uningratiating they are. He began his new series, Even Further Abroad (BBC2), by promising to reveal to us the "lime-green posing pouch of reality" (a characteristic blend of metaphysics and small-ads grot). This garment was nowhere in evidence in the scene in which the presenter was thrust, butt-naked into the world by two satellite dishes arcing bolts of blue lightning - but the sight of Mr Meades in a state of nature (more of that later) was the least of the affronts he had planned for the viewer. He enjoys nothing more than a finely calculated insult; whether it is by ignoring the medium's conventional politesse towards interviewees (he is forever stealing your attention away from them), or by tramping on our twee sensibilities - literally, in the case of his progress through a model village, where he crunched tiny villagers under his feet and ended by leaning down to stub out his fag on a thatched roof. He even booted Thomas the Tank Engine across a car-park at one point, a splendid moment for those under the yoke of the grinning locomotive, but oddly unnerving at the same time.

His scripts don't obey television etiquette either, or, at least, not its conventional obeisance to transparent functionality. It isn't that you'd never encounter words like "agaric", "utile" and "shibboleths" elsewhere, but you would be unlikely to encounter them all in the same programme, or sounded with such insouciant disregard for their reception. Even if you pay close attention - not a conventional posture in front of the small screen - you are liable to miss a grace-note here and there. The gist comes across, though, and, in the case of this first episode, that was the boldest insult of all, a blasphemy against the current piety towards the natural.

Reviewing the cooling embers of the white heat of technology, Meades was stubbornly defensive of Sixties monuments to scientific utopianism - the nuclear power stations, cooling towers, listening posts, high-rises and reservoirs. Underneath the suit and the Ray-Bans lies an unapologetic Augustan: "Nature is always improvable," he said starkly, "it needs man to shape it." This argument cuts across the obvious lines of allegiance; Meades was withering about ecological nostalgia ("Now we want our power sources to be natural, whatever that means - rub two sticks together?"), but he appeared to be fond of wind farms, on the grounds of the assertive footprint they stamp on the landscape. If this sort of thing rubs you up the wrong way, then I doubt if there is much that I can say to change your mind, except to point out that in a generally tepid medium, the energy and witty sting of the thing is very refreshing - rather like one of those health cures in which you are hosed down with icy water and emerge both mildly dazed and invigorated.

Insiders (BBC1), a series about an open prison, is the latest dramatic offering from Lucy Gannon, creator of Soldier, Soldier, Peak Practice and other well-crafted family runabouts (she can't be blamed for the fact that subsequent owners don't always maintain these vehicles as they should). It is a little early to say whether this will be as successful as earlier models but, on first acquaintance, it displays the same solid build-quality. The main engine of the plot is a feud between Bill Nighy's resentful toff (in for tax fraud) and Robert Cavanah's chippy warder (given a new posting because he'd been having an affair with an inmate's wife). But there are auxiliary power units, most notably the ripe availability of Annie Whitby, a liberal prison officer who is, for reasons we don't yet know, pretending to have a steady boyfriend. And if a prison drama without bars seems a bit like a pressure cooker without a lid, you soon spot the dramatic compensations - a good social mix, with white-collar crims rubbing up against minor offenders, as well as much more flexibility about the relationships between staff and inmates. Last night, Bill Nighy took advantage of the latter to have a good self-flagellating yell while up to his chest in sea-water - not a scene that Prisoner: Cell Block H could readily deliver.

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