In early January 2012, I was discharged from hospital and sent home to adjust to life as a heart failure survivor (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – prognosis, at the time, not all that good).
It’s hard to fill your days when can’t walk even a few hundred metres without needing a long rest to recover. You don’t leave your house an awful lot, and even doing the things you enjoy can become tiresome. New enthusiasms are a godsend.
Soon after I was discharged, BBC4 broadcast the first episode of Jonathan Meades’s series of films on France. I’d seen some Meades before (his Queen Victoria film in 2001, when I was home from university; I missed the start of it, though), but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to watch one properly, and I was transfixed. Here was a singular TV presence: dark-suited, ferociously eloquent, idiosyncratic, unapologetic, scabrous (lists that end without a conjunction are a Meades speciality).
The Guardian described him as exploring France like a man trying to poo a dictionary, but you don’t learn many new words watching telly these days, so it certainly didn’t seem like a valid criticism to me. I found all his other films online, going back to his early Abroad in Britain stuff, and devoured it all. All of his films merited a rewatch or two (or three in my case), and so they became a kind of life raft, something to cling to during long, boring afternoons or evenings otherwise filled with nothing.
While I was working backward through his archive, Meades’s TV output slowed. He is not, it should be said, just a writer and performer on TV. His talents are many. But he has spoken in interviews about how difficult it now is to get series or programmes commissioned and adequately funded by the BBC. In truth, the lack of funding directed towards BBC4 programme making is everywhere evident: 15 years ago, there was something interesting on most nights, and a new music documentary most Fridays at nine. Now, new shows come along much less frequently, and are evidently made for less money than previously.
Meades’s last series with high production values was On France. His recent films Ben Building and this week’s Franco Building, which completes his quartet of films about the architecture of Europe’s great 20th-century dictators (I’m holding out hope for Tito Building, though), are evidently the product of straitened circumstances. In his older films, Meades inserted himself physically into almost every shot: as he discussed the architecture of the Soviet Union, or 1960s big-tech structures in the UK, or Belgian suburbs, he’d stand there, in his suit and dark glasses, thunderously declaiming to camera. He was fond of visual, in-camera jokes that depended on his conspicuous, hitman-esque presence.
His more recent work sees much of his narration delivered in a studio, in front of a green screen. To make it more visually interesting, Meades is superimposed on buildings, or behind buildings, as he discusses them. Still images are photoshopped, some segments are illustrated with animation or static drawings. He’s doing his best, but the budgets are clearly not what they were. We should, I suppose, be grateful that he’s still allowed to make films at all. Especially, this one: Franco Building, broadcast this week, sees Meades in uncompromising anti-religion form. I’m surprised no one senior at BBC4 got cold feet about showing it. I’m sure there will have been complaints.
Their loss. Franco Building was thrilling. From Jerry Building to Ben Building, Meades has never shied away from showing the horror of these despotic regimes, and there were ample shots of human remains in mass burial pits and sinister orphanages in which the children of dead Republicans were housed and re-educated (that is, indoctrinated) after the civil war to show the enormity of Franco’s regime. But tourism was the programme’s throughline, from the posh hotels that sprang up in the 1950s to house well-heeled pilgrims and culture tourists walking the trail to Santiago de Compostela, to 1960s high-rise blocks in Benidorm, which long-time Meades watchers won’t be surprised to find he has a great deal of sympathy for.
Neither will long-time Meades watchers need reminding of where the birthplace of modern mass tourism is: Prora, on the German island of Rügen, where the arm of the Nazi state called Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) built eight identical blocks, parallel to the beach, measuring nearly three miles in length. In light of Meades’s evident horror of Prora, the murderous regime that built it and the others that copied it, his sympathy for Benidorm’s sometimes kitschy, sometimes pleasingly futuristic towers may seem surprising. But then, Meades has always preferred bad taste to middlebrow taste.
In a week where the prime minister has announced via the Queen that he will suspend British parliamentary democracy for five weeks because it doesn’t suit him to face any opposition to his plans for a no-deal Brexit – plans supported by a only a fraction of the population, and an even smaller fraction of MPs – it may do us good to remember what actual fascism results in, but also how actual fascism starts. There are parallels. Perhaps one day, in a more enlightened era, a successor to Meades – an older, crustier Owen Hatherley, perhaps – will make a programme called Boris Building, but let us hope that won’t be necessary.