Last Night's Viewing: Jonathan Meades on France, BBC4; The Crusades, BBC2

 

The boilerplate way of beginning a documentary these days is to read out a bombastic contents list. In the first of his films about France, Jonathan Meades decided it would be more instructive to tell us what we weren't going to get: "No strings of onions, no Dordogne, no boules, no Piaf, no ooh-la-la, no Gallic shrugs, no street markets, no checked tableclothes," he said. And, it seems, only a very tiny snatch of accordion music, briefly aired to acknowledge the unavoidable trope and then swiped away with a needle scratch. Instead, Jonathan Meades on France offered "Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopedia", a collage of entries, all beginning with V and proceeding alphabetically from Valise to Vosges, by way of Vaugeois, Verdun and Vexatious Litigants, among other things.

Not all that arbitrary, it should be noted, despite the apparently random construction of Meades's essay. Because what eventually emerged was a suggestive tangle of subjects, frequently connected by cross-reference and ultimately producing a coherent (or kind of coherent) essay about French patriotism and its self-deceptions. You got reactionary politics, notes on style, digressions into typography and topography, discursions on the food and architecture of border regions and – all the way through – a resolute and dogged resistance to the standard clichés of the television travelogue. Yes, Meades's opening piece to camera was filmed in front of a lovely stretch of French countryside. But what entirely filled the foreground, stubbornly unlovely, was a wedge of empty tarmac. And yes, you did actually get some red-checked material, in an Alsacien bistro. But, let's be fair, it wasn't on the table.

Meades is one of the few really distinctive stylists we have left on television. His prose is aggressively undemotic (where another presenter would say "pig farming", he says "porcine husbandry") and his manner is mischievously indifferent to the terror of not-being-likable that seems to pervade so much presentation these days. He gives the impression of not caring in the slightest whether you think Charles Maurras and Action Française are interesting or whether you share his fascination with the utopian architecture of Claude Ledoux, which he described here as "exhilaratingly sullen". A sudden close-up of his face on those words, expressionless and unsmiling, hinted that whoever was calling the shots in the editing suite thought this wasn't a bad description of Meades either.

Some won't be exhilarated, I suppose. They'll think it's "elitist" (because they've got used to television treating them as fools and calling it a kind of courtesy). Or they'll get lost in the complexity of the information that is being offered, which includes no forgiving redundancies or short cuts. I wouldn't blame anyone who does get lost – it's a concentrated bouillon of unfamiliar facts and rapid allusion, and if I had any complaint it would be that a series of six half-hours would have been a little easier to absorb. You really do have to concentrate. But it doesn't half repay it. If for no other reason, I would love it for telling me that the French for window shopping is lèche-vitrine, literally window-licking.

The Crusades is a much more conventional kind of television lecture – a historical narrative cut together from location filming, rostrum shots of manuscripts, statues, architecture and plenty of medieval music. Dr Thomas Asbridge presents it in that familiarly urgent manner that requires that at least three are stressed in every sentence. But the subject is an important one – an eruption of fanatical religious violence that began with black propaganda about Muslim atrocities and that ended (in this episode, anyway) with the massacre of Jerusalem in 1099, when Christian knights waded ankle deep in blood. That event, Asbridge said, meant that two religions would be "locked into a bitter conflict that would last 200 years". One thousand and counting surely?

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home