Sunday, February 03, 2013
Just like the buses
I have to begin by declaring an interest, I am unashamedly a Jonathan Meades fan. A fan of his writing, his reviews, his newspaper Q & A's but most of all his television programmes for the BBC which, over the last twenty years or so, have treated its audience as grown-ups as other programmes have consistently treated their viewers as idiots to be looked down upon.
Some critics accuse Meades of being 'too wordy' which is a bit like accusing Andres Iniesta of being too good at football, simply because the majority of those players he competes against just aren't as good so it is with Meades that his detractors accuse him of using words that have more than one syllable when the world can generally get by on tabloid hand me downs or the whims of commissioning editors.
This weeks offering, sadly not one in a series, was called The Joy Of Essex (BBC 4 - Tuesday 9pm), and it sought to right the many wrongs that have been carried out over the years in the name of humour or irony. The county that is synonymous with fake tans, pigs with painted toe nails, footballers wives, drug gangs and white stilettos. One of the best ripostes I witnessed during the years of Thatcher inspired excess all areas London v Essex misogyny was an 'Essex girl' who asked a group of City boys what the difference was between an Essex man and a Londoner. The gel coiffured, expense account, Porsche driving, Bolly guzzling, white socked market traders, looked on vaguely as she waggled her pinky and said, "about six inches."
Meades programme contained gentle (and not so gentle) digs at the Labour left (and its politically correct inspired alliances with a lot of what my Nan would have called 'wrong 'uns), organised religion (and variants thereof) whilst proving that you cannot judge a book by the cover of its many editions.
Essex is a wonderful county if you can avoid Basildon, Pitsea, Dagenham, Romford (at night), Chigwell, Harlow and Southend (at night) and Meades revelled in his revelations about wave after wave of eccentrics who pitched up between the old boundaries of the Lea in the south west and the Stour in the north east between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. Meades came across as a visual Iain Sinclair as we discovered stories of social experimenters, utopians, cults, philanthropic cranks, urban fugitives.
Hadleigh, a town that has a permanent place in my heart because it was the site of my only venture into boy scouting, was home to a Salvation Army farm colony for former drunks or delinquents. In true Victorian (and it struck me as a little Ayrian as well) they were told that plenty of fresh air and exercise would cure them of their bad old ways and they would live a virtuous life by discovering inner peace. Unfortunately, as in many cases repeated almost ad nauseum over the centuries, this meant living in squalid conditions whilst having to be grateful that they had a roof over their heads and the opportunity to spend their lives working on various vegetable patches.
At Burnham on Crouch, Meades reflected on the teetotallers' commune that was set up by an heir to the Charrington beer fortune. I found this particularly interesting because of one of my great-great Grandmother's involvement in the temperance movement which I have posted about on here before. You could sense as the programme moved on, and we enjoyed scenes of the Essex countryside from Meades car to the accompaniment of a mock local radio station, that Essex was a particularly large sheet of fly paper for some people large wackos.
In one village a brotherhood of pacifists and vegetarians (come on you know those two would be perfect stable mates for all sorts of bias if it wasn't for the fact we know Hitler was a veggie) had established a commune but the best was left until, almost, last. Meades was in Lee over Sands, a community near Clacton-on-Sea which boasts a nature reserve and a collection of buildings and boats that look as if time has forgotten them. Here Meades made his plea for little people, in this case white working classes, to at least be afforded the same basic rights as those minorities (either non ethnic immigrants or the old moneyed) who seem to be able to play the system and ride roughshod over what people often euphemistically call 'rights'. It was a clever, subtle message that I can't help think went over the tops of the heads of anybody from either of the least affected groups (immigrants and land owners) who were watching. It was brilliant Meades.
Then we visited the decaying Bata-Ville at East Tilbury. Built by Mr Bata, of the shoe company fame, the town predates almost all the ideas of the modern movement of architecture that exist in England, from before even the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill. Bata-Ville was a slice of 1930's Czechoslovakia built in marshy south west Essex. The shoe factory, the shops, the cinemas, the housing, all created in the style of post WW1 central European modernism for a work force in Essex. Interestingly, and not something that Meades noted but a little digging revealed, Mr Bata was inspired by one Henry Ford, now around the same time that Bata-Ville was being constructed so Ford were moving their car production from Salford to Dagenham and in doing so they facilitated the building of what is still the largest housing estate in Western Europe. So in a very short space of years Dagenham and East Tilbury found themselves at the centre of modern manufacturing, modern housing design and the birth of the modernist movement of architecture - who'd have thunk it?
When Borgen began its first series on BBC4 it followed in the wake of The Killing, Spiral and both the English and Swedish versions of Wallander and the first two episodes were something of a shock for many watching Europhiles - where were the bodies they asked, where was the violence, Borgen they said was slow and dull. Oh how wrong they were, not on the lack of bodies or the lack of violence (there wasn't any) but this was political drama at its best.
We have been spolied by the succession of quality programmes that BBC4 has seen fit to import from our European cousins, and next Saturday series 4 of Spiral begins its run. Whilst the reviewers have been asking why us Brits can't make television of this quality they have forgotten that what we have been watching has been the creme da la creme of the respective countries output. Having spent sometime watching Danish television two years ago on a visit to Germany I can assure you that an hour watching peak time Danish television makes you yearn for the banalities of Simon Cowell and those cheeky reprobates Ant and Dec.
Borgen however was class. Great storylines, superb acting and an insight into the political machinations of one of our closest European allies. In Sidse Babett Knudsen, as opposition MP and then Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, we were able to watch an actress who dominated every scene she was in.
The first series covered her political growth from leader of the opposition through to Prime Minister whilst the second dealt with the problems of trying to run a centre-left coalition government whilst in the background her daughter is having problems coping with her absent mother and also seeing her father leave the family home. The writing was excellent throughout, dealing with domestic and international politics. Subjects such as the EU, the financing of the health service, immigration and refugees, peace brokering in war torn Africa, the special relationship with the USA and Denmark's role in Afghanistan were all handled without kid gloves. This was grown up drama for a Saturday night.
Series Two closed with Nyborg calling a General Election as confidence in her ability to run the country, firstly as a woman by some of her male colleagues, reached potentially damaging proportions.
Series Three has only just begun airing in Denmark and will probably be screened over here sometime in 2014. Unfortunately just as we have recently seen the third and final series of The Killing so shall say goodbye to another BBC4 favourite when Series Three ends.
Posted by Paul at 9:28 PM