24 September 2009 | travis_iii
The most entertaining and erudite TV polemicist ... ever?
Very occasionally (very, very occasionally nowadays) a TV personality of true originality emerges. Jonathan Meades' work for British TV over the past 10 years, most recently 'Abroad Again', 'Magnetic North' and now the superb 'Off-Kilter', show him to be just that. I can't think of a British cultural film series that has extended the boundaries of polemical writing and film production so imaginatively... and has also provided so much entertainment to boot.
They are densely-layered, seemingly eclectic (though always with a coherently structured polemic), erudite, intensely cultured (architecture and food, with their attendant histories, form the backbone of Meades' televisual essays), opinionated, iconoclastic and refreshingly irreverent works; but as well as being very intelligent they are also, most importantly, very, very funny.
Obscure facts jostle side-by-side with linguistic inventiveness. His prose is at times tongue-in-cheek (Meades mixes the invented word with slang and the language of intellectualism to great and often comic effect) and is also at times genuinely moving (not a bad feat given the dry delivery), and flights of satire abound. Imaginative visuals are always complimented too by an interesting soundtrack.
The screen persona of Jonathan Meades is as central to the films as the buildings, landscapes and histories he describes. He seems an unlikely icon - the paunchy, dead-pan, heavily jowled, middle-aged man in trademark black suit and Reactolite glasses (perhaps best described as Reservoir Dogs meets Droopy), but he plays the outsider peering under the surface of modern culture wonderfully. His skewed view of his subject is reflected in his detached expression and unwavering dress-code; he is the alien showing us our world from a knew angle.
'Off-kilter' is a series of films presenting, avowedly and unashamedly, a foreigners' view of modern Scotland; or, more modestly, certain aspects of it. It is aptly timed to coincide with the Scottish governments promotion of The Homecoming and its plans for a referendum on independence from the UK, and I would recommend its iconoclastic take as essential viewing for any Scot or diaspora Scot interested in Scotland and its culture. Meades style doesn't always inspire optimism and could sometimes here be interpreted as Sassenach sniggering, but, though it is true that some of the old clichés of Scottish life are wheeled out (heart disease, alcoholism, deep-fried Mars Bars etc.) the uplifting is presented along with the depressing; Meades has a sense of compassion for the society which underlies the cultural facade that he seeks to peer behind; but then, why should the truth about modern Scotland be swept under the carpet as politicians, and the ruling cliques of Scotland (and the UK) would have? Real societies are always far more interesting than the phoney ones promoted in tourist brochures and cosy, twee TV documentaries.
If you get to see only one of the series make it episode three which is loosely based around Scottish football teams; not the Old Firm but those more obscure ones that are listed in the British football pools; it's pure genius. As a TV humourist and social commentator there is no one to rival Jonathan Meades at present.