ARTS: Are You Looking for an Argument? ; Tonight on BBC2 Jonathan Meades, with His Usual Menacing Intelligence, Takes on Surrealism. Robert Hanks Relishes the Visceral and Cerebral Talents of a True Television Original

By Hanks, Robert | The Independent (London, England), September 29, 2001 | Go to article overview
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ARTS: Are You Looking for an Argument? ; Tonight on BBC2 Jonathan Meades, with His Usual Menacing Intelligence, Takes on Surrealism. Robert Hanks Relishes the Visceral and Cerebral Talents of a True Television Original


Hanks, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


Jonathan Meades has always been preoccupied with the basic human appetites - which, some years ago, in an episode of his BBC2 series Further Abroad on the theme of "Vertigo", he helpfully listed as: "Hunger, thirst, shelter and sex, provided it's tasteful and valid within the context of the script." To that foursome he added a fifth: intoxication.

Hunger and thirst, he deals with regularly in his restaurant column for The Times; shelter, he has tackled in his writing on architecture, a topic that has also inspired some of his most memorable television work (1994's Jerrybuilding, on Nazi architecture; his recent film on Nikolaus Pevsner). Sex and intoxication are the major themes of tonight's tvSSFBM EHKL - it decodes as "Surreal Film", and is subtitled "Provided it's valid within the context of the script and is done in the best possible taste OR I've lost a hundred pounds and don't know where to find it."

In this 45-minute dream-play, broadcast to mark the Tate's Surrealism exhibition, Meades turns the surrealists' weapons against them, using their traditional apparatus of talking rabbits, nuns and over-literal punning to ask whether surrealism is a meaningful term in a culture that has freely embraced the irrational - indeed, whether "surreal" was ever anything more than a "lazy, fancy-speak" synonym for "strange". Matadors flaunt their capes at bulldozers, blue men sing the whites, an orange man plays a grand piano, a Nazi quiz-show host demands "Who put the Thor in Scunthorpe?", Janet Street-Porter says it wasn't her, she was out picking up buoys (there's one, orange and dripping)...

In the "Vertigo" film, Meades pursued the idea of intoxication by visiting those places where, licensed or not, we can satisfy the giddy urge to submit to gravity - high bridges, fairgrounds and diving-boards. I thought of the diving-boards watching tvSSFBM EHKL: Meades plunges right in to his subject; and what's more, he attempts a double-somersault with a pike and half-twist into surrealism. As it turns out, this is not Meades's most successful film - he loses form, makes a bit too much of a splash on entering the water, as it were. But it is still probably going to be the most intellectually thrilling piece of television you are likely to see in the next six months; and it's instructive to consider the reasons why it carries less weight than some of his other work.

One reason is that he himself carries less weight. Meades's physical presence has always been an essential part of his television appearances - the dark suit, the cool shades, the air of boiling contempt. His approach to the camera is immaculate - he insists that the credits for his films read "written and performed by..." not "written and presented by...": he conveys a tremendous sense of concentration, which derives partly from his early training at Rada, partly from his admiration for the French singer Michael Sardou, who is remarkable for standing stock-still when he is on stage.

But it is not just a matter of technique: Meades, hitherto a big man in every direction, has suddenly gone all willowy (he damaged a cruciate ligament, and the doctor told him that he needed to lose weight to keep his knee functioning).

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ARTS: Are You Looking for an Argument? ; Tonight on BBC2 Jonathan Meades, with His Usual Menacing Intelligence, Takes on Surrealism. Robert Hanks Relishes the Visceral and Cerebral Talents of a True Television Original
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