Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Museum of Toxic Waste

Not only is the internet fast becoming a new sort of TV archive (both legitimately, with services like BBC iPlayer and Hulu; and perhaps less legitimately, with thousands of shows uploaded by fans to YouTube, Google Video, and so on), it's also the perfect medium for discussion, recaps, analysis and review, all at the click of a button.

I mentioned Smashing Telly before, and it's through that site again that I've stumbled upon a new favourite broadcaster, English writer and critic Jonathan Meades. I suppose I'm slightly late to this train, as Meades has been active on English television since the 1980s, but then at the time he started I would have been too busy playing with dinky cars or making a radio show on tape for my mum or something to pay any heed to his modern style of freethinking.

As with Matthew Collings, it's the wit of Meades that disarms you and draws you in (on a similar note, I don't think it's a coincidence that YouTube user MeadesShrine, who has uploaded a huge collection of his work, is a friend of YouTube user CollingsShrine). His wonderfully playful attitude to programme-making is to the fore in scenes where five duplicates of him address the camera at once, where golf balls nearly smash the camera or he almost runs over a man on the middle of the fairway, and where he lies asleep while one of his guests introduces his micro-brewery.

But unlike Collings or Roger Doyle, Meades takes no prisoners: he knows he is being funny yet never so much as raises a smirk himself. Hidden behind his shades, he lectures you in the tradition of some mythical old schoolmaster (albeit a schoolmaster with a mischievous sense of humour who drinks and smokes in the classroom), expecting you to keep up. As a review of his book Incest and Morris Dancing from a few years ago has it: "A writer whose favourite words are "proximate", "utile" and "topological" is one who is also in love with his dictionary. The reader sometimes begs for relief from a syntax that defies instant parsing or a vocabulary that is knowingly obscure."

However, his playfulness and verbosity are just covers for what Meades really does: he educates as he entertains, and entertains as he educates. He illustrates the unique power of television (so often overlooked as we watch celebrities brush each others' hair and have fights about vodka) to be a forum for discussion, opinion and conversation - for real communication. In tandem with the internet, the possibilities for shows like these seem endless. And yet without the BBC's license fee (which could of course be rendered redundant by current public opinion and tastes, as well as current internet trends), it seems like the chances for television of this calibre to be made in the first place would get fewer and fewer. TV needs work like this to save it from becoming equivalent to Meades' description of the Millenium Dome: "The Museum of Toxic Waste, a routinely near-modern building filled with Mandleson-sanctioned trash and the pervasive reek of McDonald's".

As a gentle introduction, try Where the Other Half Lives (1994), a cultural and architectural history of the pub: "In many places the first real factory to be built was the factory whose end was to get the populace pissed. The main industry - sometimes the only industry - was intoxication." A quick glance at the MeadesShrine playlist page will show you some of the other things he likes to talk about, from fast food to golf, from Belgium to the damage being done to cities in the name of "regeneration".

It's refreshing to be able to put your thinking cap ON instead of taking it off before you start watching.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Tugboat!

Anonymous said...

From Claire

tugboat said...

glad you enjoyed it!

Messy Angelo said...

used to watch this cahp when i was a kid ... can't pull any of the programs from memory, only to remember he made some pretty hilarious points about bovril that probably shaped me as a person.