Jonathan Meades on France – Exclusive interview

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.

JM: Deign?!

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.

JM: No.

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.

An aspect of Angouelme from Autolav on the Puymoyen road


Jonathan Meades On France: BBC Four Wednesdays at 9pm Jan 18 & 25, Feb 1. We hope to bring you more Jonathan Meades on The Dabbler this year.
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About Author Profile: Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades is a writer, journalist, essayist and film-maker. You can find out more about his books, television programmes and other work at

25 thoughts on “Jonathan Meades on France – Exclusive interview

  1. Worm
    January 18, 2012 at 09:10

    Pippa Tregaskis sounds like a good cornish girl

    Very true about institutional corruption on the continent, strange really how the Brits get so haughty about it, even though it definately goes on here too. In Germany it’s not really considered worth commenting on, it’s just part of the day to day running of business – you want to open a new bar in town? Better drop a well stuffed brown envelope over to the local brewery first.

    Very much looking forward to the programme – especially interested to see whether you tackle the thorny issue of british people buying rubbish houses in the middle of nowhere in France, just because they are cheap. And then turning into mad alcoholics because they utterly failed to countenance just how empty most of France actually is compared to this cramped little island.

    • Worm
      January 18, 2012 at 16:56

      …also just noticed that in great serendipity, Jonathan Meades’ post happened to be The Dabbler’s 1000th post! Hurrah!

      For further dabbler reading – We’ve previously featured Jonathan Meades here

      January 19, 2012 at 11:36

      As one of the Brits occupying (fortunately renting) a sadly dilapidating farmhouse in the 95%, I can confirm that a significant export to these parts is the mad alcoholic. Though I would offer the defense that good wine is cheap and madness and alcohol are excellent bed fellows in most english towns. The difference is here we get to do it smoking jackets, kepis and shorts. Pauillac anyone?

    January 18, 2012 at 10:19

    Looking forward to seeing it tonight. Off to Paris tomorrow, so will see at first hand how depressed they all are.

    January 18, 2012 at 10:19

    No pied d’Elephant will this programme be. France, right….A1, Clignancourt flyover, (the new Rheims route is so passé,) A6, Beaune, turn left, Jura, Geneva, Autoroute Blanch, Aiguille du MIdi car park, Requin refuge. The rest is toast and contains most of the retired population of Bromley, would you live amongst a bunch of Bromley wrinklies.

    Exactly, looking forward to the programme.

    January 18, 2012 at 13:05

    I don’t think Pippa Tregaskis was sufficiently hostile here, she let Mr Meades off very lightly indeed. Paxman would have done much more interrupting.

    • Worm
      January 18, 2012 at 16:39

      If your conscience spoke to you in the voice of Jeremy Paxman you’d probably be a teensy bit highly strung…

        January 18, 2012 at 17:23

        The name Pippa is forever solidly welded to the image of a finely chiseled posterior ascending the steps of a well known cathedral and therefore colours the interview somewhat. The image, of JM standing in his street clothes on a windswept West Highland tussock, the backdrop, crashing waves, scruffy sheep etc, now overlaid with that of a cheeky white clad vision organizing the bridesmaids.

    jonathan law
    January 18, 2012 at 15:03

    Some sort of interesting psychodrama going on here? I suppose Pippa T. represents the needling voice of accepted, anti-contrarian wisdom, which even Mr Meades cannot entirely suppress.

    Does Pippa know her name is an anagram of “Tip: a prig speaks”?

    (And what’s the opposite of a contrarian anyway? A unitarian? A harmonium? An accordion?)

    Looking forward to the programme.

    January 18, 2012 at 17:30

    Top anagram, Jonathan!

  7. Gaw
    January 18, 2012 at 18:34

    I like the photograph. I used to live in Angouleme, back in the late-80s, and I hope it features.

    The city council was infamously corrupt – large sums of money were diverted to fund the mayor’s enthusiasms, including the local rugby club. This illicit funding helped them hire various foreign – and nominally amateur – mercenaries, not least the buccaneering English second-row Maurice Colclough. His French sojourn ended not just because the mayor was eventually banged to rights, but also as Customs and Excise began to wonder how such a very large quantity of French brandy was ending up flogged in Swansea nightclubs (Swansea being where Maurice moored his boat when back in Blighty)…

    It’s not too easy to divvy up that nest of corruption!

    January 18, 2012 at 20:00

    Looking forward to this programme. I live in the 5% although I do know something of the 95% too. I’m not sure how many ex pats do though. Not too many bungalows in this area thank god!

    January 18, 2012 at 22:32

    JM didn’t think much of the memorial building at Verdun did he? “A betrayal of the dead” – ouch.

    I think they should let him have a go at rescuing ‘Daybreak’ – take it in a somewhat different direction.

    January 18, 2012 at 22:53

    Looked good in the Wayfarers and lancing the boil that is de Gaulle was pitch perfect, a well honed fragmenting of the frogs. They will demand that he loses his AAA rating of course.

      January 19, 2012 at 13:07

      It was refreshing to watch a programme about France that didn’t make you want to live there, wasn’t it?

    January 19, 2012 at 09:36

    As ever with JM, it was amusing and opinionated (a good thing stuff). But also, as ever with JM, deracinated. Amusingly deracinated, but still deracinated.

    January 19, 2012 at 09:54

    One of the many blights wrecking this country, has been clearly identified and forensically picked apart by the great Theodore Dalrymple – the curse of sentimentality, available for inspection any day of the week, and any time of day, on a television near you. The doctor’s TV hero if he has one (which I doubt) must be Jonathan Meades, who turned his laser eye on France last night, giving a sound thrashing to just about anything that came within his orbit. What seems extraordinary is that the Beeb gave it the nod. Apart from a handful of dabblers and a chap I know in Fulham, I can’t imagine anybody watching this wonderful cultural commentator, with or without a dictionary to hand. Around this part of the world – my manor let’s call it – the only TV nourishment comes with the looming presence of Celebrity (?) Big Brother, featuring a washed-up Hollywood B-Lister, an outed ex-rugby International, a couple of Hugh Hefner’s cast-offs, and assorted daytime TV and soap ‘stars’. Where does JM ‘fit’ in today’s TV world of dreck?

    • Worm
      January 19, 2012 at 10:39

      twitter was abuzz with people yesterday all excited about an appearance of Jonathan Meades on the telly. I think he has a surprisingly big cult following

      January 19, 2012 at 13:07

      I can’t think of any other programme where so much viewer intelligence is assumed. You get so used to being patronised that you don’t notice it…

    January 19, 2012 at 10:25

    A terrific programme. Merciless stuff, and JM is very good on borders, which he spent a lot of the programme unpicking. The thing (apart from the sharp analysis) that strikes me about Meades is that he doesn’t waste time. Most documentary television says everything slowly, several times. We won’t get it unless it’s said several times, will we? JM doesn’t do this – or if he does reinforce a point, he elaborates on it or shines a different light on it, so we’re always getting something new. Thank God (in whom JM doesn’t believe) and the schedulers (in whom…) that the BBC found a slot for this.

    Jeremy Lane
    January 19, 2012 at 14:11

    I’m normally a fan of Meades but his comments during the TV documentary and in this interview betray a shocking ignorance of what happened in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, whilst claiming to be dismissive of Le Pen and the Front national, what Meades said on this topic was entirely consistent with what Le Pen stood for when he worked for Tixier-Vignancour in the 1966 Presidential elections. As for his comment in this interview that the minority of Algerians wanted independence, this is directly contradicted by the results of the 1961 referendum on Algerian self-determination. Overall, 73% of French voters (Algerians included) voted in favour. In Algeria itself, only 30% of voters voted against self-determination for Algeria (Serge Berstein, -La France de l’expansion, vol.1- (1989), p.73.

    Jeremy Lane
    January 19, 2012 at 14:48

    “The Presidential elections of 1966” – how embarrassing! Of course, I meant the Presidential elections of December 1965.

    • Worm
      January 19, 2012 at 16:17

      well caught there Jeremy

    January 21, 2012 at 03:30

    “The entire populace is on anti-depressants.”

    February 7, 2012 at 04:01

    As much as I enjoy Mr Meades’s idiosyncratic style I do find his verbosity tiring. Not in the sense that I don’t understand his expansive vocabularly, but in the sense that he’s basically an over-schooled show-off who has a lot less to say than he seems to think he has to say – of importance, that is. There’s a kind of built-in self-parody in his shows, which he thinks lets him off the hook of hubris – it doesn’t. Having said that, I tend to watch his shows not for the content, which I rarely remember, but for the sheer unabashed arrogance of his presentational style. Go figure!

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