Dabblers rejoice! The great Jonathan Meades returns to our screens tonight, with a new series Jonathan Meades on France (BBC Four), in which he “scrutinises 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.”
In an exclusive and highly combative interview, Pippa Tregaskis challenges Meades on Algerian independence, his programmes lack of boules and other vital matters…
Pippa Tregaskis: Would you agree that France is a bit obvious – as a subject. Compared with Cowdenbeath or Hanseatic ports or many of the things you’ve done before.
Jonathan Meades: It depends how it’s done. It depends on which France is shown. Equally what’s left out… Erm, what I’ve done is very partial.
PT: In a way you’re having your cake and eating it. Don’t you think? You’re saying: like this is unfamiliar, you won’t know about such and such, you’ve never heard of da-di-da, just how obscure is this… The demographic for BBC4 do know, they have heard of. Even the more sort of off-the-map aspects of France are more familiar than the Baltic States. You’re just flattering them. Telling them how clever they are, that they are part of the elite that knows…
JM: It hadn’t occurred…I mean the last thing I set out to do is flatter. Or for that matter…I don’t pitch my stuff according to an imagined audience. An imagined audience’s capacity. In any way. If you start taking into account an audience’s…supposed taste, supposed level of… It’s not the way I go about it. That focus group, erm, that focus group approach is…
PT: Lowest common denominator? That what you were going to say? Tad obvious? No?
JM: It may be obvious. I’d suggest it’s true though.
PT: You say. Let’s get on to the section at the beginning of each programme where you say what you’re not going to deign to include.
PT: Boules, Piaf, check tablecloths, the Dordogne, street markets. Don’t you think it’s thoroughly condescending not to even devote a moment to what is, for many of us, the essence of France.
PT: Thoroughly contrarian then?
JM: (Laughs) No, again. The point, in so far as there is a point, is to show a country that we think we know in a different light. Or rather illumine what is obscured. Nothing particularly condescending or contrarian about that.
PT: Isn’t revisionism on the subject of Algerian independence contrarian?
JM: Revisionism! Look, I’m merely declining to follow what the French call la pensée unique… the consensual wisdom – though quite how consensual… The Algerian decolonisation was a catastrophe. It still,erm, resounds… half a century later. De Gaulle’s behaviour was grotesque. He abandoned over a million of French citizens.
PT: Who took the law into their own hands.
JM: Peh! A few. Sure.
PT: You appear to sympathise with them.
JM: (Shrugs) To a degree yes. With their plight certainly. The general indifference to it was…the hostility they faced. Imagine the outcry if a million muslims were told to leave their homes in a European country and get out on pain of death. La valise ou le cercueil. Pack your suitcase or end up in a coffin. More likely a mass grave actually. The pieds noirs are like Northern Irish protestants or Serbs or white Rhodesians… victims of liberal bigotry. Routinely portrayed as quasi-fascist. Targets of what Pascal Bruckner calls the racism of the anti-racists. Easy meat for half-witted comedians.
PT: That’s not what I was getting at. You appear to sympathise with the OAS. A murderous right wing terrorist organisation. Whose leaders were executed.
JM: Victor’s justice. The methods were reprehensible. Sure. But their position was unexceptionable. They were hardly right wing. More a coalition of nationalists of various political colours. They did have a point – look at Algeria’s subsequent history…
PT: They had a point! Really? Why drag this up all these years on?
JM: It’s not a question of dragging it up. It’s never sunk so to speak.
PT: Does it impact on France today? I think not. You’re furtively nostalgic for colonialism.
JM: It’s nothing to do with nostalgia. Algeria could have remained a French department. The majority of its citizens, they wanted it to. But de Gaulle treated with the FLN – a minority of extremists. As soon as they came to power they exacted a terrible revenge on those who hadn’t supported them. Unspoken genocide.
PT: That long section about dictators’ properties in Paris. It’s all played for a laugh isn’t it. Ah ha ha. It’s like you’re saying if there were still colonies these greedy black tyrants wouldn’t exist.
JM: (Rolls eyes) They wouldn’t. Self evidently wouldn’t. Anyway, what I hope I show is that they were created by France to a large extent. They’re France’s monsters. They shame France – and its covert colonialism. Which is fertile ground…it’s an invitation to corruption.
PT: You find corruption everywhere.
JM: Well, not everywhere. What’s interesting…There’s probably no more or less corruption than in England. But the way it’s viewed. And what comes out… The French see it as an everyday…erm, not phenomenon because it’s so common, more an everyday occurrence. It’s regarded as inevitable. Part of the pattern. Something you live with. Whereas in England, people are constantly taken aback, they’re surprised. Even though it goes on all the time. It’s…There’s an expectation of…of probity which doesn’t exist in France.
PT: So you’re saying that the British are idealistic and the French are cynical?
JM: Not cynical. Realistic. Realistic in their expectations. Maybe it’s that England is post-protestant, and France is post-catholic. Don’t know. There are all sort of causes of cultural differences. Despite everything there is still optimism in England. Rather… huge optimism in comparison with France. The entire populace is on anti-depressants. The real, erm…the practical difference is that regulation is much tighter in France. There’s less leeway. So what in France is adjudged as corrupt is merely free market business practice in England. The bucaneering spirit and all that. Bucaneers were waterborne thieves.
PT: Your films give no indication why you live in France.
JM: I don’t think any of the stuff I’ve done on England ever gave much indication of why I lived there.