Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopaedia – Jonathan Meades on France

Jonathan Meades on France BBC 4 Web page imageEveryman has two countries – his own and France.

So proclaims Jonathan Meades in the opening of the opening episode of his new series.

The BBC web-page for this program describes this series as

Jonathan Meades scrutinizes the 95 per cent of France that Brits drive through and don’t notice en route to the 5 per cent that conforms to their expectation

Its opening episode ‘Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopaedia’ explore one of France’s regions, Lorraine, where the episode page advises

Jonathan Meades travels through Lorraine and explains why, although close to its eastern border, it has become the symbolic, or even mystical, heart of France and a stronghold of a romantic nationalism that is also expressed by such diverse means as typography, music, engineering, exquisite urbanism and, above all, a sensitivity to Germany’s proximity.

Jonathan Meades on FranceThis program was broadcast without fanfare or farewell in January and February of this year.

Jonathan Meades is not well known, even in his home country of England, even in his own home county of Wiltshire. He is an unphotographed entry in the Internet Movie Database, but perhaps that just means he is barely known to North Americans. But he does at least have an entry, so he can be said at least to exist.

They describe him as a

Caustic journalist who writes on food and several other subjects, as well as presenting television documentaries

Though oddly despite this information being pride of place in his entry it comes under the section of trivia! Most of his listed TVCV is Television that broadcasts without much ado – fame is not going to seek out someone so little interested in it.

His most recent work prior to this ‘On France’ was Off Kilter which title describes his work well. His longest and perhaps most known or I should say least unknown series was Jonathan Meades Abroad in Britain exploring Britain from the outside looking in – its stop-offs were not usually the usual ones and whose episodic titles may give you an inkling of their content – The Case of the Disappearing Architect, On the Brandwagon and Heaven: Folkwoven In England – then again perhaps they give you no inkling of the content and Mr Meades might be disappointed if they did.

Meades is a literary presenter who is more writer than presenter. It is his words that make him telegenic.

And in this first episode Meades begins by listing what this episode is not about. It is not about

springs of onions, no Dourdogne, Boules, Piaf, ooh la la, Gallic shrugs, street markets, nor check-table cloths

And before I begin this review I own that my knowledge of France does not venture too much beyond the realm of cliché. Sadly France remains unvisited to me despite country-wise being on our Eastern borders save a Channel of water and if I did visit her it would probably be with those 95% seeking Paris though not at least to confirm any expectations I may have of it. I have at least got to know Serge Gainsbourg a little deeper than his carnal duet Je t’aime – though whether Gainsbourg is quintessentially French, or quintessentially Parisian or quintessentially anything I am not sure.

And what this opening episode will be about will be established and knitted via an alphabet soup but not starting at A ending at Z but beginning and finishing with V. Perhaps because we are going on a vacation, if of sorts. Or because we will be veering via his vertiginous vocabulary V to V. Well, you figure it out!

And so to the first V. Valise. To the strains of La Marselliase – some comforting familiarity. For now.

Valise as marker in his words for War and Death and for Statehood – a suitcase both literal and symbolic then – declaiming

Everyman has two countries – his own and France

Quoting a line put into the mouth of Charlemagne from a late 19th Century play La fille de Roland, by Henri De Beugnier, who has Meades note was French himself, so a predictably chauvinistic boast. And perhaps an unpredictably chauvinistic comment about chauvinism from Meades.

Jonathan Meades on France OASExcept Jonathan Meades tell us that in his case (that really was a very subconscious pun!) it is true, sharing with us that his childhood visits to France were many and various including ‘weird sojourns with his granddad’s elderly business friends’ and that he was forever hauling a giant suitcase. That 1962 (half-a-century old as of time of broadcast) in particular was the year that France became his second country, when he arrived in a war-zone – France being in the throes of a terrorist bombing campaign led by the OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète), a secret military organization committed to keeping Algeria French. This being the year Algeria was to be granted its independence. Algeria was to become free from France if its people not free from its subsequent authoritarian government. The Arab Spring has only blown a little over this country…

When reviewing Meades it is very easy to just bask in his luxurious language and to merely repeat its mazey lines verbatim without comment save the occasional sigh of inhalation, sigh of exhalation. And perhaps that at times should be enough.

For him though the politics of Algerian Independence was of little import to his adolescent mind rather it was in his words the shameful thrill of its awful randomness…next V.

Jonathan Meades on France VallinVallin, Eugene – he was a furniture maker turned architect.

Nancy was we are advised a celebrated arts and crafts centre – Art Nouveau was favoured of Vallin’s time which genre depending on your disposition is at best reverentially revivalist at worst plagiarist.

Nancy though had its own version and took the English Arts and Craft movement as its model if a little less averse to utilizing emerging industrial technologies. This movement we are told is the  preferred style of the Caviar Left, translation Champagne Socialism.

By coincidence BBC 4 have a new series recently commenced Sex and Sensibility: The Art of  Nouveau presented by Stephen Smith who goes into much more detail, three one-hour episodes, as oppose to the several minutes that Meades passes over the subject. But Meades though voluble is nearly always concise. And has a lot of V’s to get through, here comes the next. And on to the next V.

Vaulan, Marquis de – economist and military engineer building battlements on Frances borders at a time when France was rapidly expanding – this V is not dwelt on long.

Jonathan Meades on France VaudemontOn to another V. Vaudémont – a small area of Lorraine and a place of worship or in his words

it has a tower that has a Mary on top of it!

He elaborates or continues in similar vein

A hill south of Lorraine is holy, or spiritual or mystical, one of those superstitious things anyway

He ends that it is the only hilly area for miles around which topographical prodigiousness is routinely claimed for God when in fact it actually belongs to the marvels of geological happenstance.

We spend some time with Maurice Barres one of Vaudémont’s inhabitants and politicians and described by Meades as ‘a clubbable bigot, a xenophobe steeped perhaps paradoxically in German literature’ and has ‘a Lorraine supremacist’

I am not free to think as I wish. I can live only in relation to the dead of my race. They, and my country’s soil, tell me how I should live

Meades thinks that much that he wrote was absolute tosh, but captivatingly written tosh. He notes that Barres influenced not just the gullible but an entire generation – and in him the hill was proclaimed the sacred hill of the nation.

We are advised that Joan of Arc also came from Lorraine, in nearby Domremy. And that Charles De Gaulles was a disciple of Barres too and chose to live on the border of Lorraine though on the other side of that border! Like loving the ideal of someone yet sensing even the briefest time in their presence would disappoint if not appall. Describing then from his border-vantage it has having

a melancholic emptiness where nothing changes, not the spirit, not the place

eulogizing a vapour…

Like Barres De Gaule was described as a solitary being who sought solace in the signals of nature leading Meades to conclude therefore that destiny here was a delusion prompted by

birds chatter, leaves gusting through forests naves, dappled, shafts of sunlight, raucous twigs, sprinting clouds and a multitude of furry animals scurrying nowhere in particular…

And then we look at the Lorraine Cross – a Christian Cross variant which we are reminded the Swastika was too. This Cross was a symbol for the Free French precisely because it defied this German Nationalist Imperialistic Invasion. This neighbourly violation.

This V comes to a close and next Vaugeois. Founder of ‘LAction Francais newspaper Meades lists that he is

anti-Semitic, anti-Corporatist, anti-Republican, anti-democratic, anti-Protestant, anti-Masonic, (pauses to add) goes without saying – it was Catholic and Monarchist

Meades muses on identity has a perennial concern of the far right

whose enemies are rootlessness, cosmopolitanism. A form of communitarianism which defines people by their race and inherited cultured rather than by their individuality, their aspirations, and their talents. It’s a kind of prison.

One of its street-hawkers Meades tell us was Jean Marie Le Pen subsequent leader of the French National Front and youngest ever member of the French Parliament who in turn was inspired by rabble-rouser Pierre Poujade – the deafening voice of the silent majority.

Meades proposes this eternal stance of victim is always with us, always impotent – like Philoctetes its wounds will never heal. Even those merely imagined, especially those merely imagined.

Jonathan Meades on France VedetteAnd on to Vedette –  that is the Simca Vedette – as any lover of mid 1950’s French cars needs no further explanation! Here used as a symbol of Les Trentes Glorieuses (Thirty Glorious Years)  – today an everyday phrase it was originally coined in the book of that name by economist Jean Fourastié from the late 1970’s – and described approximately the period from the liberation of France in the World War II through to the Liberation of French Women in the early 1970’s  – decades that experienced exponential industrial growth amid the rush towards modernization and va-va voom (had to get those V’s in – not a crowbar in sight!) both public and private.

We then see Meades statue-like in a French supermarket or hypermarket or megamarket you get the picture – as My Way in French or perhaps the French song it was based on Comme d’habitude, no matter, plays on its sound-system

For this economist glory relates to the spread of affluence, the triumph of consumerism, medical advances, education, improved working conditions, improved public services and so on.

I own, therefore I am.

Though ownership at least that includes and acknowledges taxation – a visceral verbal volley usually hissed from the individualists, the delusional individualists against taxes – there is no such thing as individuals – we are all social beings, inescapably so, and all the stronger and more diverse and, perhaps paradoxically, the freer for our endless interdependence.

I am happier and healthier now that I drive a Simca Vedette and have plenty of plenty, the state is no longer solely an ideal to which I bear quasi-religious fealty and adolescent resentment. It is also a supplier with which I enjoy a near commercial relationship in exchange for my taxes. My heavy taxes.

Glory then in an economic ideal not a nationalistic one of soil and pomp with vaunting exhortations to patriotism

Just as well Meades notes as this was a quite inglorious time for France.

Though as an side is this not the way of history? – it is that nostalgia thing again – we experience always our national life has anxious and disappointing and inglorious, it is only when it becomes past with the increasing distance of space and time that its ingloriousness sheds its first syllable –  embellished by unreliable memory and variously motivated cherry picking.

Back to Meades. France, both at home and its (colonial) abroad, specifically its military forays which as Meade succinctly calls it

France played 4 lost 4.

Surrender becoming habit forming and we are now given another language lesson this time a list of German words that have invaded and or been integrated into the French language.

Jonathan Meades on France VerdunAnd on to Verdun

Starting with  a song Verdun by Michel Sordou over footage of this World War One battle.

A battle in 1916 that claimed 300,000 lives. It is to France as to what the Somme is to Britain. But whereas the Edwin Lutyens Monument  to the Missing of the Battle of Somme remembers it in an architecturally appropriate way the architecture commemorating Verdun Meades thinks does not . This being the Douaumont ossuary. Not that it is frivolous but that it lacks solemnity, lacks gravity. It is the architecture of pleasure placed in a cemetery, inimical to meditative remembrance – the architects lacked the nerve to address the awful purpose of the monument , they made light of it, a 140 metre long betrayal of the dead.

They were also victims of the Modernist Century’s incapacity to devise a commemorative mode Meades adds and that no century ever needed one more.

Verlaine – Paul not Tom.  And his ode to Metz. Site of an earlier military surrender from 1870 – the invader again Germany and as before we looked at how language was invaded too this time we look at architectural invasion. Such as the Metz station – described by one critic memorably as an immense squat meat-pie!.

Further time is spend looking at renovations of existing buildings to rewrite history and render them Teutonic.

Jonathan Meades on France Metz VerlaineVersailles – and back to 1962 and Jean Bastien-Thiry who attempted to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle and which spawned a book The Day of The Jackal  in 1971 by Frederick Forsyth and a few years later a film by Fred Zinneman starring Edward Fox and we are going off track. Back again then to 1962 and the failed assassination attempt and as much of note was his trial (also for treason) was that the General to preside over it killed himself rather than sit in judgement and the firing squad tried to miss the target, that is Bastien-Thiry!, taking half an hour to eventually kill him – because perhaps he used to be one of them, the French Military Establishment that is, having served in their air-force. He was the last person to be killed by firing squad in France. And why Versailles? This was the location of the cemetery he was buried in which tombstone now has an annual ceremony and remembrance of sorts as attended by his fellow surviving outcasts and which routinely prompts protests. As heroes and villains are often the same person.

Jonathan Meades on France StrasbourgVexatious litigants – and Strasbourg  and the location of the European Court of Human Rights – its building is disparaged for its architecture and then for its purpose.

The latter explained away has a Court of Special Pleading and that we are showered at birth with the promise of potential entitlements and should those entitlements not be fulfilled we can come here and complain and so line the pockets of the pious shysters of the Human Rights Industry!

And the architecture is described as being indistinguishable from buildings on the Polish-Lithuanian border, a comment only helpful if you are familiar with the architecture of the Polish-Lithuanian border!

Multiculturalism in the name of diversity is the next to find itself under the sun-glassed gaze of Jonathan Meades – and this one is a vituperative verbal volley – brace yourselves!

the constant injunction to celebrate vibrant diversity is moronic. It is shared qualities that should be appreciated. To emphasize differences merely consigns people to their background, to where they’ve come from, to their tribe, their caste, their religion. It creates ghettos.

France’s regionalism is then addressed. He notes that it is exacerbated by its absorption of its many bordered countries – Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

What is noticeable he then observes is the absence of reciprocity – these countries do not absorb France as France absorbs them. Universalism in his words does not travel!

By way of example and a dig at German cuisine – what do you call good German cooking? You call it Alsacian cooking. Alsace enjoys a reputation as the most gastronomic region of France, arguably the most gastronomic country on earth. But noting the dishes themselves are all originally German but Francofied… Alsace though a border region with perhaps inevitable ambiguous loyalties to both France and its border boarder Germany.

And another French region, another V – Vichy.

Cue old British Empire-style war footage with a plummy English accent voiceover describing Pierre Laval, French Prime Minister during wartime, second world wartime, and who had to negotiate with Germany whilst his nation vanquished by them, and being described by said plummy voice as being in the habit of eating Frogs and thus making him technically a cannibal – casual cringing racist diplomatic humour!

Most French Meades advise were neither collaborator or resistance  rather at varying degrees between those two outer poles but the extremes having greater story value to history prevail. He notes though how its war criminals stealthily changed sides and suits and rose through the peacetime political ranks. And that though subsequent generations of Germans have expressed much shame for the culpability of their ancestors subsequent generations of France’s citizens have expressed no such shame for their collaborative role. Rather it was but another episode in France’s interminable civil war – right against left, monarchism against republicanism, catholic against an alliance of masons, protestants and secularists – the aforementioned AOS we are advised included both former collaborators and resistance fighters – men who had been deported to Dachau, men who had deported them.

Vienna! – the baguette is not French! You may have guessed then that it was introduced to Paris from Vienna in 1830.

Vietminh – not to be confused with Vietnam – though they were of that country and set up to establish independence from France – and during World War 2 against Japan too. And this Meades tale is about Georges Boudarel, a French teacher in Saigon who in 1950 defected to the Vietminh soon to become a war-criminal being responsible for the death of 300 or so of his compatriots. Reminding that the heart of darkness is not a geographical place but the darkness of the heart. He was sentenced to death in-absentia. And later recognized in Paris by one of his surviving victims was tried non absentia – in the interim he had been living in France having embarked on a university career as an  historian, revising his own history too, put on trials for crimes against humanity and now defended by his academic colleagues in the name of colonial revisionism. He was freed under the terms of an amnesty. This was a common French fate for colonial misadventurers. And veer off again to another v.

Visionary Visionaries – we see a ticker-tape pictorial parade of those so selected – Andre Godin, Le Corbusier,  Pascal Hausermann and Claude Nicolas Ledoux, to the sound of I Close the Door Upon Myself by Susumu Yokota.

He then elaborates a little or a lot as his fancy takes on each.

We first cut to Ledoux and his salt-works – a utopian salt works! Described memorably by Meades – though Meades has so much that is memorable that by virtue of its quantity it becomes unmemorable! – as exhilaratingly sullen.

He talks of the talking architecture – Architecure Parlante – giving Meades play to riff on model examples such as

a public toilet in the form of a syringe, a new house of commons in the form of a suitcase of money or cash dispenser, ‘that sort of thing’!

Jonathan Meades on France Le CorbusierOn to Le Corbusier described as a Swiss peasant who according to Meades wanted to be a French genius, a cultural colonialist and these the more flattering terms he has for him!. His works are treated more favorably – buildings that use machines but do not worship them. Described as

plastic, expressive with deliberately rough edges. Purity of form is suppressed, impurity of form is more interesting.  The meeting point of France and the Future.

In his second country Meade declares the future had already arrived. Or rather a future had already arrived. One that looked like it had suffered multiple amputations! But one at least that the French had a share in, not imposed from without. The future existed in the present.

Jonathan Meades on France HausermannOn to Hausermann – also Swiss – and Meades then reminds that many from Switzerland are mistaken for being French listing Rousseau, Godin and others before deliberately trailing off as a long list. Like many Scots who are thought by non-Brits as English but I veer. And what did Hausermann do? It was he that created the architecture of that French future now!

On to the next V.

Vitrine – the arrival of white Goods to France and seemingly endless household gadgets or rather appliances.

Jonathan Meades on France VitrineCar colours expanded – there was a time when every other colour was Cobalt Blue

somewhere between the colour of Gitanes and the colour of Gauloises! Two of the country’s predominant scents!, along with urine, sewers, two-stroke fuel!

Jonathan Meades on France MistralMeades then veers to typefaces and that they are as much logos charged with political regionalistic significance as functional fonts and we arrive at Roger Excoffon and Script Fonts. Script fonts are based on hand-writing and Excoffon devised a script font based  on his own handwriting – Mistral – the real inspiration being that each letter alongside any other letter appears joined up – any word comprising them appears legible yet any letter detached from the word can appear illegible – the letters work as words not as letters! Each part of each letter has a universal joint.

We then look at the Choc typeface which takes this legibility to the very limits of almost-scrawl!

Mistral is now a common place on shop-fronts and menus.

Voltaire – finally a V I have more than passing familiarity with! And back to Nancy – the city that most physically embodies the enlightenment.  Meades first reminds of Stanislovas Leščinskis, King of Poland, amongst other royal titles, and patron of many of these enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and also Montesquieu and Emile du Châtelet.

This king was described by Meadesas an epicurean philosopher and counseled happiness, optimism, virtuous hedonism, philanthropy, good fellowship, and self-regard.

Nancy was described as his greatest work – a Versailles for the people.

Jonathan Meades on France Voltaire

This statue of the Polish king is improved by the long-distance view. Up close you'll see a pigeon-poo tear-stain running down his cheek!

We spend time looking at his main commissioning architect Emmanuel Héré de Corny and his various creations described by Meades as ‘vectors of happiness’.

He notes his architecture was dated even before the final stone was laid – by at least half a century indeed – and, ‘so what’ – the worth of art he contends is not about novelty and being ahead of the game.

To the penultimate V – Vosges – a  vineyard rural area – this one included not so much for its place in French life and its history but in Meade’s own memory, charged childhood nostalgia – such as Nonagenarian great-grandmother and her seventy year old daughter who cooked a dinner of him of hare

telling him that this was the house that she had been born, and from which she had never moved, yet she had changed nationality four times, French, German, French, German, French. She told it to him without rancor it was merely what had happened to her. She hoped to die French. She did.

La Valise ou le cerceuil and we are back to that suitcase again.

This time, to the statement everyman has two countries, his own and France he answers ‘Wrong’.

Some men have no country – has in the aforesaid displaced Algerians – as this v fully translates as ‘The suitcase or the coffin, expatriation or death – hundreds of thousands left Algeria, hundreds of thousands were murdered. The authors of this overlooked genocide he advises were the terrorists of the FLN (National Liberation Front) and their new friend Charles De Galle.

The program now vanishes. This post vaporizes too.

Holy Flying Circus – The Resurrection of The Life of Brian

Holy Flying CircusHoly Flying Circus explores the controversy surrounding the 1979 film The Life Of Brian. Explores not as some dry academic documentary but in the inspired spirit and fantastical imagination of its film’s creators, Monty Python.

That is not to say this ninety minute drama, from production companies Talkback Thames and Hillbilly Films and Television currently airing on BBC 4, is completely surreal and irreverent. There are moments when it veers – if briefly – on to the straight and narrow – and serious points get made. Freedom of speech is both no laughing matter and very much grist to the comedy mill.

And this is comically and tragically what Holy Flying Circus is about.

Holy Flying Circus follows the period following the release of Life of Brian – its critical and public reception – especially in the Python’s home country of Britain (well leaving aside Minnesotan Terry Gilliam).

The Life of BrianAnd for those of you have not heard of let alone seen The Life Of Brian, BBC 4 were showing this too – so that we can discover or remind ourselves, as the case may be, what all the fuss was about.

Briefly Life of Brian is based on the Life of Jesus where Brian is mistaken for Jesus. And the film then pursues the mishaps following this mistaken supernatural identity. So a satire of the Christian Religion, not of its figurehead Jesus, and what could possibly go wrong? Who could possibly be offended?!

The film was classified by the British Board of Film Classification as AA (which meant those 14 years of age and older could view the film), and not the adult classification of the time X as many were expecting. However the last say on film distribution in the UK is with its Local Councils and thirty-nine of them re-classified it  to the  then adult (18 and over) X and in many cases imposed an outright ban.

Toward setting the record straight the Python stars of the film were reluctantly persuaded to appear on a discussion program on the BBC called ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’, though John Cleese himself initially was opposed arguing the film should be allowed to speak for itself.

It was then agreed that it would be the initially recalcitrant and combative John Cleese that would appear alongside the ever-reasonable and accommodating Michael Palin (who in the shows words ‘is even self-deprecating about being self-deprecating’!)- a sort of bad cop, good cop rationale – that would represent the half-dozen Pythons on the debate show.

Holy Flying Circus - Friday Night Saturday Morning

Friday Night Saturday Morning scene

This debate would be hosted by Tim Rice (himself the subject of a similar if more minor controversy for writing and staging in 1971 the Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar). Representing those opposed to it would be writer and born again Catholic Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood.

The debate itself did not go as many might have anticipated – without giving it all away it was Palin who proved to be more combative than Cleese and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge more pugilistic than the Python pair.

And The Life of Brian itself despite showing in British cinema, well in some of them at least, it was not until 1995 that British Television felt brave enough to air it.

Here we are in 2011 and would a film satirising the beliefs and practices of a major religion be met now with greater tolerance if not complete magnanimity?

It would certainly depend on what part of the world such a film was being shown in. A better question might be would a film satirising the belief’s and practices of the established religion of a particular country be shown without censure and rancour?

Paradoxically perhaps in the UK I think a film satirising Christianity would be tolerated whereas a film satirising Islam would not be.

Holy Flying CircusConsider in Holy Flying Circus that God has a part and that this part is played by secular saint Stephen Fry. But would Mr Fry have been so comfortable playing Allah? Would the writer of the show Tony Roche have had Ben Crispin playing the prophet Mohammed as he had him playing Jesus? In both cases I doubt it.

With the controversy following The Life of Brian the writing Pythons were keen to state that it was the practices of the believers of Christianity that were being satirized not the beliefs itself. But can you really successfully satirize like this without also satirising the beliefs themselves?

Religion is privileging its beliefs? Any secular beliefs are open to full and frank debate and exploration – neither the beliefs or the author/s of those beliefs are off limits. But with religion we are saying that some aspects of the debate are off limit. Or rather those that have those beliefs are saying this. More specifically it is Established Religion that sets itself up as being beyond criticism. Less mainstream and orthodox religions are as liable to be lambasted and ridiculed as any secular belief.

Holy Flying Circus

The Pythons portrayed

The question is why do those who do not share the beliefs feel the need to be so circumspect? The fear of hearing the ultimate censuring word ‘blasphemy’?

We should respect each others rights to believe whatever the hell we want but that is not the same as saying we should respect whatever the hell it is each of us believes?!

Holy Flying Circus itself does not pull these philosophical punches – it opens with a figure on the desert plains suspiciously like Jesus advising that none of what follows actually happened, ‘that it is largely made up. Like The Bible’ and the show proceeds in this irreverent spirit till its conclusion ninety-minutes later with Michael Palin appearing in Heaven – or at least its ante-chamber – and saying to Stephen Fry that ‘he is not sure that he believes in him anymore’ God, that is!

The three main protagonists of the showing of The Life of Brian in Holy F$%ing Circus include a Andrew Thorogood, played by the ubiquitous Mark Heap, and one accomplice with Tourette’s Syndrome and another with a Stutter – the comedy here writes itself!

Some of the portrayals of the original cast are eerily reminiscent. John Cleese in particular played by Darren Boyd captures not just the physical demeanour of Cleese (if through a Basil Fawlty filter!) but also his very spirit. The portrayal of Michael Palin by Charles Edwards and Eric Idle by Steven Punt are similarly compelling.

Comedy like freedom of speech is a serious business but as you would hope Holy Flying Circus when not provoking and stimulating does not forget to divert us, entertain us, and well, makes us laugh out loud.

And we are warned when watching at the outset that Holy Flying Circus like The Life of Brian contains very strong language and adult humour, but that if we are okay with that then we can go ahead and watch, freely and untroubled, unlike until very recently we could with The Life Of Brian.

That I guess is some progress.

Holy Flying Circus

The Save BBC 4 Campaign

BBC Four LogoCurrently there is a campaign and online petition in place to save BBC 4.

The BBC are having to make cuts – or savings – our Prime Minister prefers the term savings but then as he is the leader of the coalition government making those cuts he would! But when is a saving not a cut – just more Orwellian newspeak…

Save BBC 4 CampaignSave BBC 4 CampaignThis need for savings arises from the BBC’s Delivering Quality First (DQF) initiative – the name of their consultation agenda for their current charter period ending 2017. The TV License Fee has been frozen by the government until that period meaning the BBC will have to save one-fifth of its current budget – oops, I used the phrase ‘save’ – its subliminal!

And BBC 4 is in the firing line – as is the daytime output of BBC 2 and the extent of how BBC News 24 is sourced. I understand that cuts do have to be made – consciously resisting the subliminal message now! – and whichever channel they target is going to have its fan-club up in arms resisting the changes. It is positive testament to the BBC that their channels inspire such fierce loyalty.

And if BBC 4 is to escape unscathed then other channels will have to be scathed, and which?

BBC local radio?

BBC News 24? – they do have a number of discrete programmes, such as Hard Talk and Click, but much of the news is repeated fifteen minute chunks always bordered by sports and weather updates (an aside, why do we need weather updates – surely that could be scrolled on the screen or we could use our digital red buttons to access our local weather – I don’t want to know what the weather is like five hundred miles away from where I live at any time of the day nevermind every fifteen minutes!).

There is so much going on in the world, so much going on in Britain, yet we would never know it from the limited items reported on, then repeated ad-infinitum on BBC News 24. Not so much BBC News 24 as BBC News Quarter of an Hour.

They could share the cuts across all the channels? The BBC equivalent of all being in it together?! Less daytime and after-midnight output, but leaving the evening and weekend peak-viewing times intact?

Just as anyone of us can become an armchair general or armchair football manager so we can become the admittedly less glamorous armchair accountant – sitting in all cases at a comfortable distance not having to deal with difficult details and the inevitable messy human cost.

My concern for BBC 4 is that it is already like its younger party-going sibling BBC 3 a part-timer – clocking in at 7pm for its evening and then graveyard shift – heading off home to rest in the early hours of the following morning just as their older sibling channels are waking up to offer us their various Breakfasts.

BBC 4 LogoAnd then much of its content is repeated – if you miss Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency of an evening chances are it will be shown again after midnight and then later on in the week. And with the excellent BBC iPlayer that is of itself not that much of a selling point rather that BBC 4 is already padded out as it is – I am not sure how much saving there is in cutting down on the multiple showings of new content? Perhaps too if BBC 1 and 2 never had their younger siblings, 3 and 4, much of that content would have made it on to 1 and 2 anyway?

The BBC could also consider more content broadcast solely online – the iPlayer itself is a recognition of the time-shifted nature of how most of us now live our lives and watch our television – though perhaps this is an idea whose time is not yet ready with the user experience simply not as satisfying on a smaller computer screen with the vagaries of Broadband.

BBC 4 Library LogoThere is much support for BBC 4 – not just the viewing public but its jobbing actors and presenters – on Twitter there are many speaking up in favour of it and urging us to sign the petition – I have done so – such as Armando Iannucci, David Mitchell, Stephen Mangan and there is also a Twitter account Save BBC Four we can follow to monitor the progress of the campaign.

It is my favourite BBC channel too…for its arts and science output, its comedies, its literary adaptations,  its European crime dramas! – for example in no particular genre order the aforementioned Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency, The Art of Russia, Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits, Lead Balloon, The Thick of It, 2012, The Killing, Wallander, Spiral, Everything and Nothing, Women In Love – I could go on but run the risk of merely listing their entire schedule!

Considering its allotment of hours is relatively small it has managed to cram those hours with programs full of quality and originality. I hope, as with the campaign to save BBC Radio 6, that BBC 4 will be ring-fenced and the channel’s current creative content continue.

Save BBC 4 Campaign

The Real Jane Austen

The Real Jane Austen - Anna Chancellor

Presenter Anna Chancellor

The Real Jane Austen a 2002 one hour documentary of the life of Jane Austen is currently being re-broadcast on BBC 4.

It was presented by Anna Chancellor who you may remember as Caroline Bingley from the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice but who is also an eight times great niece of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen herself is played by Gillian Kearney – the 2008 BBC TV film Miss Austen Regrets also portraying her life had Olivia Williams in the Jane Austen role and who has become in my mind Jane Austen! – but Gillian Kearney presents a very convincing Jane Austen too. You being I presume an Austen Aficionado will know there is only one picture of Jane Austen and of which there are doubts to its accuracy – but in any case the measure of Jane Austen is her personality and spirit which is abundantly clear to all who read and understand her works. Both Olivia Williams and Gillian Kearney capture this.

The Real Jane Austen - Gillian Kearney

Gillian Kearney as Jane Austen

Her close sister Cassandra is played by Lucy Cohu.  Lucy Cohu was to have a small part in another Austen film. the biopic Becoming Jane, and which had Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen – I can feel another blog post about all the on-screen (and radio) portrayals of Jane Austen!

Their mother going only by Mrs Austen, is played by Phyllis Logan. Their father going only by Mr Austen, is played by John Standing. Neither as far as I am aware have ever acted in a Jane Austen screen-play – I note this only because most prolific British actors, as these two are, have usually acted in one such at some point in their Thespian career!

This illustrious cast of British actors also included Jack Davenport as brother Henry and Wendy Craig as Aunt Lefroy.

The program was directed and produced by Nicky Pattison.

The program explores her life in detail – her upbringing and education, her immediate family and various significant relatives. Then the upheaval of having to leave her Steventon family home for Bath which she could not endure before settling with her sister Cassandra and their mother in a cottage in Chawton on their brother Edward’s estate.

The Real Jane Austen

The Real Jane Austen, maybe!

Naturally her literary life is detailed too – her prolific precocious output and the routines and processes for her writing, to the publication of her first novel Sense and Sensibility by ‘A Lady’ – as alas at this time writing was not seen as a fit profession for a woman – with the second Pride & Prejudice by the ‘Author of Sense and Sensibility’ before the mystery of its author could be hid no more and her name finally put to her seminal works.

By the time of Emma her fame was such that the Prince Regent himself was a huge fan and wanted Emma to be dedicated to himself! Though, like many of her fellow country, she did not like or respect him, she could hardly refuse and settled on a compromise dedication.

The Real Jane Austen also addressed her love life – a brief youthful romance with Tom Lefroy, a nephew of her neighbour and who was to become the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, where he eventually abandoned her due to her not being seen as a respectable match owing to her relative poverty. Speculation also that he was source material for Mr Darcy!

Then later a marriage proposal from a brother of her friends, Harris Bigg-Wither, which she initially accepted then having slept on it rescinded the following morning. She could have had much wealth and position had she accepted but declined as could not endure a marriage without love let alone affection.

The Real Jane Austen - sister Casandra

Sister Cassandra by Lucy Cohu

She, like her sister Cassandra, whose own husband died whilst they were engaged, was destined never to marry, never to have children. Though Jane Austen often refers to her own books as her children.

The Real Jane Austen makes clear that she did eventually experience recognition of her great talents in her lifetime and some degree of fame but she can hardly have expected to become such a posthumously popular, beloved and significant author in British Literature – rubbing shoulders with both Shakespeare and Dickens.

Finally the latter stages of her life and her premature death aged 41 to an undiagnosed illness are played out.

The program reminding us that she left six great works and then asking how many more might she have written had she lived a longer life.

This program is an informative insight into the heart and mind of Jane Austen.

Miss Austen Regrets presented I think a more fitting tribute as it treated Jane Austen’s life as one of her own novels but The Real Jane Austen manages also to capture her sense and sensibility.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency

This series is to mark the 200th anniversary of this brief but revolutionary and creative period. At its helm the Prince Regent himself, the great patronizer of art and design.

On the BBC 4 website she asks us when was Britain at its most elegant and most decadent, its most stylish and most radical. Her answer as you might expect is that it was the regency and she goes on to explain why she thinks that. Also detailed on this page is what we can expect from this series. It looks at the man the era was named after, the Prince Regent, along with other Royals and Aristocrats as well as its working people and how they all experienced this decade, 1811 to 1820. Also covered are the celebrities of its age – the likes of Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Joseph Turner and John Constable.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency The Prince of Whales

The Prince of Whales

In the first episode Warts and all – Portrait of a Prince she looks at how the Prince Regent, George IV, was obsessed with outdoing Napoleon – “not on the battlefield but in terms of opulence, bling and monumental architecture’. The BBC iPlayer page provides further details of this episode.

She finished her opening introduction advising us that there was a lot more to the regency than Mr Darcy!

Her team at Kew Palace on discussing what the public know about The Prince Regent, reported on a visiting little girl who said he was ‘Sad Mad Bad and Fat’!

George was the United Kingdom’s ruler but a regent not its king owing to the temporary absence of his father George III due to his incapacitating mental condition, yet despite this he was the subject of much virulent irreverent satire by commentators and cartoonists. It is hard to imagine any of our present royal family being pictured as a whale which in ‘The Prince of Whales’! he was. Nearly two hundred years on our satirists seem very tame if not obsequious to our current heads of state – whether Royals, Lords or Commons.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and His Wife

Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and His Wife

The program looks at George’s art collection – he bought prodigiously – including the most expensive in his collection Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and His Wife.

Alongside his collection the program looks at the extensive collection bequeathed to Dulwich College by Peter Francis Bourgeois, landscape artist and court painter to George III which unlike the Prince’s private collection was open to the public. His collection could have been left to the British Museum but he considered it was ran by snobs and too closely associated with the Regency Inner Circle. He was of the father’s royal court not the son’s. Hence his bequest to the Dulwich College. The Architect John Soane built an art gallery within the college grounds to house them, also out of money left by Bourgeois. It was the first gallery open to the public.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency The Prince

The Prince Regent

The Prince Regent also liked his clothes – his budget for fashion as extravagant as that for his art-works. The most fashionable man in London at this time was Beau Brummel – whose influence also extended to the Prince. The program uses ‘Dandy’ by The Kinks to showcase their outfits – Brummel himself is credited with inventing the suit. Though when saying his budget it is notable that he bought his extensive wardrobe on credit – he ran up huge debts, many remaining unpaid.

At this time Britain was the reigning European superpower having just beaten the French and Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo  – but the Prince Regent had little to do with it not being a soldier let alone on the fields of battle. But he was clearly vain-glorious and self-delusional and had become the subject of many paintings with him as the conquering war hero – Wellington a mere shadow of him. Appearance trumping reality reminding that spin is nothing new just the methods of its commission.

The royal portrait painter was Thomas Lawrence, president of the Royal Academy, and referred by Lucy Worsley as the ‘Chief Flatterer’ and very definitely counter-weight to the cruel cartoon caricaturists. Lawrence was the Photoshop of his time, routinely taking pounds and years off the monarch.

To most of his subjects these paintings would be all they would have seen of him. Appearance clearly was more important than reality.

I look forward the next episode Developing the Regency Brand which will explore its architecture as part of the rebuilding of Britain during this period.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency Dulwich College

Dulwich College

Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits

Laura Cumming: Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self Portraiture

Laura Cumming

Or Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Television Art Presenters.

Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits presenter is Laura Cumming a new addition to this preternaturally verbally dexterous procession of celluloid art critics – Andrew Graham-Dixon, Matthew Collings, Waldemar Januszczak…

Laura Cumming is by current regular trade the Art Critic for The Guardian. She has produced arts programs for TV before, on the BBC, but this is her first time in front of rather than behind screen.

In addition to presenting and narrating this program she has also written a book on the subject titled A Face To the World: On Self Portraits published by HarperPress in 2009 an even more comprehensive exploration of this subject. I think the TV title is a better one than the book title but perhaps the buyer of art-books is a more higher-brow and serious sort than the watcher come browser of art-telly. At any rate this program is a stimulating and sharp summary of that page-turning art tome.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear - Van Gogh - 1889

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear – Van Gogh

The hour-and-a-half-long program first broadcast in 2010 on BBC 4 takes a comprehensive five-century-long look at self-portraiture from about 1500 to about now. Or at least of Western art – Eastern art is perhaps conspicuous by its absence but perhaps too it would make the program too unwieldy or just that we in the West are a far more vain and self-absorbed people…for this program makes clear that for artists their greatest and often most frequent subject is their own self.

The program then asks the question why – a deeper understanding of themselves and thus all humankind? Or an exercise of self-promotion like a modern day autobiography multiplying their image far and wide with a similar desire to project upon themselves all the vanities of their age?

Or further an exercise in post-mortal time and space-stamping?

Much known and unknown art is viewed – including the most extensive collection of self-portraiture in the world in the Vassari Corridor in Florence, Italy and bringing much hitherto kept secret art to the light of day – well at least to the obscure light of the art-lovers who are granted an appointment to see it for otherwise it is not open to the public – still as near private space as when it was commissioned by the Grand Duke Cosimo l de Medici to the design of Giorgio Vassari in 1564 and visited upon by those fortunate to be within ambit of his royal patronage. But this is not the space to wonder what is art if it is not seen.

The self-portraits in this program are viewed very literally face-to-face as Laura Cumming invades the portraiture’s space, going uncomfortably close, unblinking eye to unblinking eye, at one point literally recoiling from the canvas a tad tearful unable to hold any further the gaze of the 1500 Albrecht Durer.

And it is not only the two dimensions of paint on canvas that is here faced but the three dimensions of the face and head in bust and sculpture. She approaches unwillingly it is clear the unsettled and unsettling bronze busts of Franz Messerschmidt. I was so unsettled by his work that I moved an image of his work in this post from where the Van Gogh self-portrait now is to the foot of this post as I thought it might unsettle you while reading this!

Durer 1500 Self-portrait

Durer 1500 Self-portrait

The most known and key artists in this strange and wonderful world being Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Warhol.

But it is not just the works of the long gone artists that she engages with but of the very much here and now, meeting and interviewing English artist Mark Wallinger while viewing his own sculpture self-portrait – a conceptual life-sized or Mark Wallinger-sized letter I, – a self-portrait that we can all project our selves upon.

Also visited is another London artist Patrick Hughes who also works in three dimensions but not in the traditional sculptural way rather an inside-out world is entered as he takes a mould of his face and indeed skull and paints a picture of it on the inside of the face-mould to an unsettling and tricksy effect which he uses the linguistic concatenation ‘reverspective’ to describe.

As well as the art and its historical, religious and political context there is the psychological – Laura Cumming wonders how meaningful is self-portraiture in the first few centuries here surveyed when the very concept of the self was ill-defined and ill-considered if considered at all.

The program and its author succeed on the terms of their engagement – that self-portraiture is far more than idle and indulgence – far more than narcissism – a mirror not just of the artist but of we its audience.

I was as engaged with Laura Cumming and the program as she herself was with her subject self-portraits.

And was left wanting more of The Strange and Wonderful World of Laura Cumming.

Franz Messerschmidt