Gallic Shrug: Rachel Cooke Is Mystified by a Tour of Tenuous Connections in the Alsace
Cooke, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
Jonathan Meades on France
I think my long-standing crush on Jonathan Meades - it's an intellectual crush, obviously; I certainly don't pine to peel off his Paul Smith socks and give him a foot massage - is finally on the wane. His new series, Jonathan Meades on France (Wednesdays, 9pm), is, like those that came before it, suigeneris: eclectic, challenging, weird. And yes, as usual, Meades assumes a certain intelligence on the part of his audience: if you had to give his brand of documentary-making a name, you would call it "I don't-suffer-fools TV". Only this time, he's gone too far. Call me dumbo, but the flattery I used to feel at being taken so seriously has given way to utter confusion. During the first film, I kept hoping for a narrative - for a kind hand, as it were, in the small of my back. But, no. "Tant pisl" his expression said, as he leapt rhetorically in the direction of his next subject.
This series is about an "occluded" France, and will therefore involve no strings of onions, no red-checked tablecloths and no street markets (cue a shot of Meades standing, straight as a prize courgette, in the aisle of a chilly hyper-marche). Instead, he intends to talk about ... what, exactly? In the first film, everything began with the letter "V": Verdun, Verlaine, vit-rine (as in leche-vitrine, or window shopping), Voltaire, Vosges ...
On and on he went, flipping through his material as if through a Rolodex. For me, this involved two kinds of frustration. The first was that just as I began to get interested in something - the 1960s bombing campaigns of the terrorist organisation OAS, say, which wanted to stop Algeria's independence, or Roger Ex-coffon's iconic 1953 typeface, Mistral (Meades's description of Mistral was like listening to difficult poetry) - he would move on. The second was that-yes, I know-1 couldn't help but want him to talk about food.
Back in the day, as you will perhaps remember, Meades was a fantastic restaurant critic, with the love handles to prove it. Then he went carb-free - or something free - and these days he looks like a pink Nigel Lawson: slender but somehow baggy and purposeless, like a deflated football. …