Belgium – Jonathan Meades investigates

Ive got a soft spot for some of the traditional travel essays, like Palin and Coast but find it increasingly hard to accept the central conceit of these programmes ie that Palin has just turned up at some village and met some interesting characters by chance – when everyone knows its all been researched to an inch of its life and there’s a huge crew in tow.

Then there’s the default TV position now that if the material is anyway challenging then it needs an alternative comedian, or an all-purpose TV personality with limited knowledge of the subject, to condescend to them about it, and ensure that the irony quota is met.

Or if they do know something about what they are talking about they tend to be a breathless Poshos – like Cruickshank – sucking all the life out of what should be fascinating topics with his heavy breathing ‘you are an idiot’ guides.

For example the BFI’s version of the Mitchell and Kenyon films treats its material, and the people depicted, with dignity and gives it the footage the space to speak for itself. The Cruickshank version is scared to let the pictures and the facts speak for themselves. It has to keep us distracted with pre-masticated intepretation.

As the TV channels successfully prosecute the war against intelligence (you can have middle brow or popular culture and that’s your lot) – it feels like it must be a result of some contractual error that Jonathan Meades still ever appears on terestial.

What Meades does is what all good film and TV essayists does which is to explore and play with the constraints, conceits and potential of the medium in a way that helps them to provide a distinctive take on an issue that fascinates or obsesses them.

There should be a channel for them. Patrick Keiller, Adam Curtis, Humphrey Jennings, John Betjeman… Has there been anything better on TV recently than the Power of Nightmares? Going further back John Betjeman’s Metroland is 50 minutes of TV that is hard to beat.

Fortunately there is now a channel of sorts of Jonathan Meades essays – Meades Shrine on You Tube.

There’s plenty to go at – but the programme he did on Belgium stuck in my memory from seeing it the first time round.

I can never make my mind up what I think about Belgium – never mind whether I like it or not. And Meades just adds more layers to disorientate you. Belgium manages to be both scruffy and slightly louche, conservative, bureaucratic and morose whilst being serious about sensual excess and reveling in artistic and architectural styles that feel like dreaming following too much cheese and alcohol. A place where ludicrous minor laws are rigorously enforced but where paedophile killers can go on the rampage indefinitely.

Confused you will be…

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