Who is Jonathan Meades exactly? It’s hard to say. Describing him as merely a writer, novelist, documentary maker and cultural critic somehow isn’t enough. It would be like calling Jesus ‘a carpenter’ or the Muppets ‘puppets’. He writes about culture, geography, art, technology, identity, fast food; he writes about architecture and our relationship to it, and he presents his own essays on television. He is without doubt everyone’s favourite psychogeographic topographer. Really, Jonathan Meades is a professional Jonathan Meades. He’s one of the lucky few that makes a living from being himself.
Wikipedia tells us he is 70 years old, from Salisbury, and has appeared in over 50 TV shows – mostly documentaries. Although these programmes are usually shown on the clever channels (BBC2 and Four) it is baffling that he isn’t yet the household name he should be.
He’s easy to fall in love with. His books and shows are so singular, so unique you want to keep him a secret but at the same time feel a brutalist-inspired tower block should be built and given his name. He attracts obsessives. They can be evangelical but at least no one’s gone off him yet. He’s anything but predictable and only appears fleetingly. He would do well to avoid the route of fellow documentary maker Adam Curtis’ slow descent into self-parody.
Meades has a way of speaking his thoughts to camera that is quite hypnotic. His dead-calmness and infectious inflections trick you almost immediately. You find you would like to have him narrate everything that has ever happened to you – or perhaps just every documentary you’ve seen; he is the David Attenborough of architectural criticism.
The best way to introduce yourself to his work is by watching rather than reading. The books are vital but save them until later. His documentaries are more immediate – on the screen you get all of him at once. After only a few moments of watching, you should start to wonder where he’s been all your life. The Jonathan Meades Collection (£12.99) is an excellent start. It’s best to just put the DVD on knowing nothing of what he’s about to say, as one of his best characteristics is surprise. His phraseology is brilliant. I don’t know if he’s ever written poetry, or even song lyrics but I know he’d be superb. He has a rhythm and a way with a stunning analogy. In each episode there will be at least one new word to pretend you know, or line to grab you by the mind and stay there for the rest of your life. As I write, I’m enjoying his concept that ‘diving is a parody of suicide’ and of his description of a staircase as ‘suicide friendly.’
In the 1960s Meades attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and his theatrical presence is still on show. He’s a hot soup of Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart Lee and a sober Peter Cook. There is a theory that the best lecturers are the comedians because the more you laugh the more readily you’ll remember and learn. Meades understands this. He could be talking about the symbolism of the elevator or the strung-up corpse of Mussolini but his wit never wavers. That’s not to say his books and commentaries are a nonstop lol-a-coaster: you should only be smiling when you read or watch, belly laughs would be a distraction.
His snobbery is part of his funniness – part of his shtick. He’s the best kind of snob; he’s on our side, probably (well, most of our sides, occasionally). Television is filled with art historian presenters trying to establish a reassuring and familiar character: the flirt, the man of the people with his big filthy hands and, of course, the noncey, slightly-racist old don. But Meades is different, he comes across like a great baddie – the Blofeld of aloof put-downs. He knows we are all a bit snobbish like he is. You’re watching BBC Four so of course you are! He does not make allowances, he does not appeal to the lowest common denominator – it’s up to the viewer to make an effort. Under any circumstance Meades is still 100 per cent Jonathan Meades. His emotions are reined in and slowly you start to appreciate you’re being taught by this sardonic ‘man in black’, one who studied classics and Monty-Pythonism.
I can’t pretend I know much about Marianne Faithfull but I was delighted to be informed by Meades’ film “The Joy Of Essex” (2013) that her grandfather invented the Frigidity Machine – a device designed to liberate the libido. Presumably it didn’t work. Meades knows that detail is as addictive as it is important. He will constantly throw one in just to check you’re listening and weeks later you suddenly realise you know who Le Corbusier was and that you even have a favourite building.
His documentaries always have the same sense of the absurd. We have the presenter telling us things to camera, as is traditional, but he could appear as a dot in the landscape or perhaps he’ll be shot in middle-distance from the waist up, in front of some architectural curiosity and always, always in that suit. Often he’ll be talking to you in black shades; that, along with the black suit, gives him an air of mystery. This is a snub to contemporary television and its love of reality where everyone is the same food-loving singer and dancer but Meades gives nothing away about himself and he needs you to listen. Who is Jonathan Meades? He’s whatever you want him to be – but he’s mostly an approachable intellect. Now shut up. You might learn something.