Last Night's TV: Jonathan Meades: Magnetic North BBC4<br/>The Smoke House, BBC1

Nothing grim about this trip up north
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The Independent Culture

"To be northern," Jonathan Meades declared near the start of Magnetic North, "is to be for ever ill at ease with oneself." Is this true? Like so much that Meades proposes, it won't stand up to much dispassionate scrutiny – I've known any number of northerners who could do with having some of the self-assurance knocked out of them – but it feels true when he says it. And certainly, it's not altogether false: as he pointed out, in this country, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and money chasing after the south, taking our holidays there, eating the food, drinking the wine, but none of this can change the fact that we are of the north.

In this two-part travelogue, Meades has taken it on himself to introduce us to our cousins across the North Sea, showing us what we have in common and what we're missing when we pretend otherwise. The first programme took him from Arras in northern France, the start of the north, where the vines aren't productive and beer takes over, up through Holland and across to Germany's Baltic coast. Next week, he continues east, to the Baltic's terminus. The proposal behind the programme is that all the countries along this route share a common culture, discernible in the cuisine, the art, the architecture and the religion, among other things: pickled herrings, grotesquerie, Gothic churches and lots of brick, and the multiplication of sects. He told a Dutch joke (when three Dutchmen meet, they make a religious sect; another one comes along, and they split over a question of doctrine), illustrating it with four different varieties of edam; the last of these was a heretical cheese, flavoured with pepper: "May they sneeze in hell." The south, by contrast, has centralised its religious authority, if not its cheeses.

Perhaps it's only the scheduler's imagination at work, but the series comes across as a riposte to Andrew Graham-Dixon's recent three-parter, The Art of Spain, which finished last week. In some ways, the programmes overlap and contradict, and Meades doesn't always come off best. When he talked of a northern taste for detail and the grotesque as something distinct from the south, I'd have liked Graham-Dixon to tap him on the shoulder and mutter the word "Goya". But overall, the contest is uneven: for all his acuity, Graham-Dixon is, in the end, just another bloke on the telly, with the conventional manner of somebody who's been told he must engage the viewer – face, gestures and tone of voice all strain to convince you that what he's saying is really, really important. Meades merely commands by stillness, only the right eyebrow working away in a corner of the TV screen to show you how much he cares. Together with the dark suit, the clipped tones and purposely elaborate verbal constructions, it creates an aura of authority that at times almost lulls you into ignoring the currents of glee that propel him along.

There were moments in this programme where I was unconvinced, notably when he advertised the brilliance of contemporary Dutch and German artists, who from the samples shown here were all painting a variety of not-quite-photo-realism. I wanted the programme to be shorter, too, if only because the arguments I was having with it in my head were piling up and I needed time to sort them out. But Magnetic North has a sweep, an intellectual confidence and a sense of mischief you won't find anywhere else on TV. Meades is an artist of television, and, like most artists, is always talking about himself, even when he isn't: when he praises Gothic churches for the way their seemingly inhuman severity leaves room for the individuality and humours of the maker, he's really showing off about the way his own lofty manner allows his eccentricities to flex their muscles. And when he calls the north magnetic? Well, I wouldn't disagree.

The Smoke House is a bit of social engineering masquerading as children's TV. A group of non-smoking children take their smoking parents to an isolated house where, in cahoots with a doctor and the occasional minor celebrity, make them gasp their way round assault courses like fish flopping between pools in a drought, and talk constantly of death and orphanhood. I don't need any convincing about the evils of smoking and the selfishness of the vast majority of smokers, with their self-serving attempts to make non-smokers feel guilty for curbing their pleasures. And the example of Keith (80 a day, £105 a week, and forced to quit the assault course because of severe chest pains) made the medical case clearly enough. But enlisting children as anti-tobacco agents, and televising their parents' addictions and health problems for our entertainment, strikes me as sinister. I couldn't help thinking of the Russian boy, righteously squealing on his parents for hoarding grain, and dying with Stalin's name on his lips. A more cogent objection to this series is that it can't possibly hold the viewer's interest for the scheduled 10 episodes: how many wheezing dads and reproachful teenagers can anybody stomach?