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?
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