MEADES' CITY LIMITS; Jonathan Meades Subjects Birmingham to an Affectionate but Warts-and-Al L Examination in a Television Documentary Tomorrow Night. He Tells Terry Grimle Y Why He Has Always Been Fascinated by the City
Not many people can claim to have invented a new television genre, but cultural commentator Jonathan Meades is one of them. The quirky documentaries in which the darkly-suited, darkly-bespectacled Meades explores places or institutions, combining deadpan delivery with startling visual tricks and metaphors, can be entertaining, illuminating or irritating - or perhaps a blend of all three - according to taste.
Now beware, for Meades has turned his relentless gaze on Birmingham for a one-of 30-minute programme which is being broadcast tomorrow night.
The title, Heart Bypass , should already have alarm bells ringing for those over-sensitive guardians of the city's image still smarting over Jeremy Clarkson's comparison with a bath recently vacated by a rugby team. But be prepared for a surprise - Meade s actually likes Birmingham.
"This film is something I've wanted to do for a long time, for a number of reasons, some of which are implicit in the film itsel" he told me.
"I've known Birmingham all my life. I don't come from there but my father's family comes from Evesham and an uncle went to Birmingham University and worked for the city council until he went to Burton-on-Trent and became town clerk there.
"My father's mother would take me up to Birmingham once a month or so and the pleasure gardens alongside the Avon - Evesham, Bradford and villages like Broadway - were Brum's playground.
"I find most British provincial cities pretty untenable but I have always enjoyed Birmingham. I find it very gentle and unaggressive - which may be completely wrong-headed, but it's an impression I've always had."
The film's title, then, is not a reflection on the character of the people but on one of the oddest facts about Britain's second largest city. Despite being located right in the middle of England it is curiously invisible to the rest of the nation -perh aps not physically, since millions of non-visitors must pass through it by train or on the M6 each year - but culturally.
In the programme Meades sums it up as "a place that is at once hyperbolically typical of England and hermetic, an ignored void at the heart of the country".
"The films that I make are much more about ideas about places than about places themselves, concepts rather than architecturally or topographically accurate," he said.
"I had always had this concept of Birmingham as somewhere which is much more welcoming in a blokey sort of way than Bristol or Manchester or Leeds.
"But also there's the fact that Birmingham is indisputably unknown to a great many people in Britain. It doesn't have a very strong image; it doesn't have that unselfconscious boastfulness that most northern places do. It's certainly very un-Englishin i ts appearance. Yet at the same time I think in some ways it's quintessentially middle-England; the seleprecation is quintessentially southern England."
Meades proposes that something he calls the "Irony Curtain" divides Britain somewhere around the Trent. North of it people say what they mean, south of it people shelter behind ironic humour.
While Meades's film does poke fun at us - taking a gondola to one of the least prepossessing stretches of the city's canals serves us right for our over-laboured comparison with Venice - he is sufficiently in sympathy to go with the grain of our ownselo cking humour, so none but the most uptight of marketing professionals is likely to take offence. …