Last night's viewing - Jonathan Meades: the Joy of Essex, BBC4; Locomotion: Dan Snow's History of Railways, BBC2


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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Meades: the Joy of Essex began with Aaron Copland's "Buckaroo Holiday" on the soundtrack – an unexpectedly Western accompaniment to an uncherished bit eastern hinterland. Perhaps it was a kind of coded warning. Wedge one hand tight under the saddle and prepare to cling on for as long as you can. Because Meades's programmes are never the plodding mounts you'd pick out at the stable for a nervous first-time rider. In fact, they seem almost perversely bent on throwing their viewers off, vaulting and jinking, kicking-up almost constantly.

They delight in feinting one way then darting the other. What came next, for example, was an invitation to view a string of Essex clichés. "Look," Meades invited, "footballers' cast-offs", "four-by-four with tinted windows", "platoons of reality TV cretins who are barely capable of reading their own newspaper columns". But what you could see on screen wasn't that at all but Essex's other sights – pargeting and ancient brickwork and clapboard fishermen's sheds, the bits of vernacular architecture that are to Meades what daffodils were to Wordsworth.

And you saw Meades himself, of course, pugnaciously square in the frame, scowling of mien and with those trademark Ray-Bans, rebutting even the possibility that we might form a personal relationship with this particular presenter. Brian Cox will look into the camera as if it's you he's talking to you one to one. Meades, exhilaratingly resistant to the routine courtesies of television, won't make eye contact at all. Well, exhilarating to me anyway, though I imagine that there are viewers who prefer a welcome mat and a generously open door. You can guess what Meades thinks of them from his characteristically dismissive remark about the more conservative and traditional designs for Essex's social housing: "Accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons." So, if you have trouble with the description of Tom Driberg as "the country's foremost spermophage", you know where you can go.

Meades's subject here was Essex's odd connection to social utopianism, the most immediately available escape from London's worst slums offering a natural home for all kinds of improving communities, from the Hadleigh Farm colony that William Booth set up ("where broken men of bad habits might be reformed") to the Bata factory in East Tilbury, and its surrounding estates of Czechoslovakian Modernism.

 It's never entirely safe to assume you know where Meades is headed though, because he'll often slew sideways down a sideroad to inspect something gratifying, or something gratifyingly ugly, as here in a brief digression on the architect A H Mackmurdo, who combined William Morris-like political opinions with an "uncanny gift for designing what looked like the most banal buildings of the day after tomorrow". I'm still not sure exactly where we ended up, since I still can't work out what his very last remark about Essex meant ("It's a voracious sump inhabited by an eternal and mutating Driberg," he said). He threw me in the final seconds, I guess. But it was a wild ride till then.

In Locomotion, Dan Snow pretended to deliver one of his pieces to camera from the top of a moving train, which is much more like the attention-seeking behaviour we're familiar with from presenters. I don't think it could have been for real, though, given the BBC's general aversion to avoidable risk.

 This was a far more predictable journey, partly because Snow offered you an itinerary of station stops at the top of the programme. But the third of his programmes on the history of railways had some appealing side-spurs too, most notably the line running between refrigerated beef and the dominating excellence of South American football. The game was first introduced to the continent by British railway workers servicing "the English octopus", the network of British-built tracks that fed Argentinian wheat and beef out to the sea ports. If only they'd played ping-pong instead.