Review: Jonathan Meades – The Joy of Essex (BBC Four)

Meades the Joy of Essex

Jonathan Meades returns to our screens tonight with The Joy of Essex (BBC Four, 9pm). Our own Jonathon Green finds his old friend in typical acerbic, cliché-bashing form…

Jonathan Meades, who has guided us of late around the Baltic Fringe and through the less obvious aspects of France, has made his way home. Or at least back this side of the Channel. To Essex.

Essex, is there a county so deeply enshrined in contemptuous and yet simultaneously envious iconography?  Do we need enunciate the clichés? Slang noted the county’s role long since: Essex’s lion being merely a calf, it’s stile a ditch. This, maintains Mr Meades, is mere placeism: kneejerk condemnation based like all isms on the lazy regurgitation of spoonfed pap.

Meades, a man of solids, has no time for this. In its opening sequence The Joy of Essex runs down the clichés; bling, tanning parlours, McMansions, chirpy if exiled cockney cabbies and the rest. That the background to these is a travelogue of Essex glories: brick houses, mini-castles, swathes of fertile vegetation, dank  but  fascinating marshland, the sea…all makes it clear that this is not the Essex of TOWIE. Not a white high heel in sight. Writing in last Sunday’s Telegraph he noted that the Essex of popular fantasy, Essex Girl Essex, to paraphrase, is what the marketeers might term Essex TM. The Joy of Essex, I would suggest, is Essex JM.

Meades has been at this for a long time now and Meadesland has its landmarks. Those who take a trip there know what to expect and relish it. There is the usual acerbic wit: ‘accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons’, ‘democracy is all pretence, but it is the pretence that is important,’ an appreciation of the counter-language: a man who married well ‘got his cock in the till’ and the description, adapted from Tom Driberg’s biographer Francis Wheen, of the voracious fellator as the great ‘spermophage’; a far from genial contempt for such ‘prefects’ as politicians, planners and other layers down of laws for others, an admirable philosemitism. If one needs to seek an epitome of the refusal to suffer fools gladly, look no further. And if there is one difference that should jump out at every regular, it is sartorial. Abandoning his usual mix of subfusc and some un-named colour-code from Reservoir Dogs, Meades has a donned a polo-neck. It acknowledges, no doubt, the east winds that traverse the county under review.

Nor does the erstwhile restaurant critic eat or drink. No signature herrings, no cold running schnapps. The linking comedy is produced by the parodic delivery of cod-local radio newsflashes delivered in tones so authentic that they are surely professional. Much less of these, I fear, would have gone as far if not further.

If Essex TM offers the pleasures of conspicuous consumption and above all immediate gratification then Essex JM shows that the county’s older leitmotif seems to be that of gratification infinitely delayed. Essex appears to have been a magnet for utopianism. I come not, declared William Morris’ Time Traveller, from Heaven but from Essex. The tour d’horizon takes in a variety of schemes, often sidling into cranky cultdom. The original appears to have been the Salvation Army’s late 19th century land colonies, seeking, as Meades notes is ever the way, to reform those considered to be enjoying life too much, i.e. via smoke and drink, by depriving them of such pleasures and replacing them by hard and in every sense unrewarding labour.

The Sally Ann scheme worked, fields were tilled, cheap goods produced, and its graduates were smartly dispatched to new lives abroad. The cults that followed, the hey-nonny-no folkies and their kin, did not. Beards, sandals, exercise, that grimmest of all phrases: ‘joining in’. The joyless regimen of health and efficiency. There is an underlying sniff of Charlie Manson in all these utopian hempen homespuns and what Meades terms ‘transcendental bivouacs’. Cults  spinning out of control and potentially disastrous consequences. Purgings, fissiparousness, the fell diktat that if I am right then it is necessary that you be wrong and suffer accordingly. In the event none seem to have prospered.

This is Jonathan Meades and the social comes with the architectural. Usually in the same entity. The BATA shoe factory, a Czechoslovak creation that blended cheap manufacture designed to confer both social and economic benefit with a range of company designed buildings (houses, leisure centres, the factories themselves) that adhered to what was for Britain a revolutionary modernism. The firm moved on, the buildings remain. More modernism – crisp rectilinearity, Crittall windows (another Essex creation) , sleek, unblenmished  white paint – in Gidea Park and Frinton but Britain prefers its residences as mini-manors. As Meades points out,  there is something suspiciously ‘international,’ i.e. Jewish, about all these ‘foreign’ right angles and the wilful denial of furbelows. Meanwhile Essex hosted the ‘effortfully eccentric’ A.H. Macmurdo, sometimes credited as founder of art nouveau, but in truth not so. Meades, like a design-driven Tom Thumb, plucks out these architectural plums, though uninitiates will regret that he chooses to leave some of them unspecified.

What Mr Meades likes, as regulars will know, is the unfettered. The personal on parade and no place for high-minded condescension. He dealt with prefabs long since and Essex offers its share, folk art created by poor whites, home-built follies thrown together with ‘lashings of asbestos and corrugated iron’, as our narrator puts it with all the enthusiasm of Blyton’s  Famous Five sitting down to a scrumptious tea. This is the true workers’ playtime and there are no physical jerks in Meadesland’s utopias.

For Jonathan Meades the disappearance of this ‘people’s Essex’, the true ‘joy’ of the programme’s title, is to be mourned. The planners’ authoritarianism – utopia for themselves if not those upon whom they impose themselves – will ensure that. As for Essex TM the scum continues to rise. Perhaps Mr Meades, so particularly well equipped to excoriate such dross, will devote his next appearance to doing so.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

16 thoughts on “Review: Jonathan Meades – The Joy of Essex (BBC Four)

  1. Worm
    January 29, 2013 at 09:09

    Very much looking forward to this! Thanks for the review JG – somehow i just knew that Meades would be visiting the BATA shoe factory and the plot lands of Laindon

    I think one thing to note about Essex is that the Essex of Towie is really only situated around Brentwood and Chigwell, so practically London really. Essex is a massive county with just about every possible combination of landscape and dwelling within it.

    January 29, 2013 at 10:13

    Superb Jonathon, no one unpicks the builders and occupiers of the built and unbuilt environment better than Meades. Are we sure, Dabblers, that Jonathon and Jonathan aren’t the same person. Hope the other one mentions Essex’s greatest export, the Woods of Colchester bifurcated fan, a world class extractor, fitting, don’t you think.

  3. Brit
    January 29, 2013 at 13:43

    Can’t wait for this, though I hope it’s slightly less arcane than the France ones and more like his earlier Abroad in Britain efforts, which I’m gradually working through on DVD. They are extraordinary.

    January 29, 2013 at 13:53

    Marvellous. The Mackmurdo stuff will have archiphiles reaching for their Pevsners, and the Bata (more properly Bat’a, but they dropped the apostrophe from the family name when the company expanded from its Czech roots) factory and town make one pinch oneself – is it not all a dream of some architectural miscegenation coupling the garden city movement and the ideas of Le Corbusier (or, more likely, the great Lyonnais urbanist Tony Garnier)? I await enlightenment…

    January 29, 2013 at 14:00

    Thanks, Mr. Green. I’m really looking forward to this.

      January 29, 2013 at 14:41

      So am I, as someone who was brought up on a farm on the edge of the Essex Marshes. There isn’t a more varied county in the realm.

    John Halliwell
    January 29, 2013 at 15:11

    The joy of Essex; the idea was difficult to embrace as I stood on platform 5 at Crewe station on freezing Monday mornings in the eighties. My heart often sank at the sound of the dreaded ding-dong: “The 7.08 to London Euston has been delayed due to staff shortages at Liverpool Lime Street (the crew got pissed last night after the 4-1 win over United), a line obstruction at Runcorn (a group of clairvoyants protesting about HS2) , and a missing 20 foot rail at Acton Bridge (removed in response to a rumour that Chinese manufacturing was looking for metal). We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and hope you have a good day.” On one occasion, my colleague shrugged and said “All this, and a trip to the arsehole of England thrown in.” I thought the description was a bit strong; admittedly the lines from Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street stations to Brentwood and Basildon would never feature on ‘Great Railway Journeys of the World’, but neither would Altrincham to Manchester Oxford Road; and Basildon always gave the impression of being an example of man’s inhumanity to man. But the people were great, so warm and helpful, especially those Essex girls. And around and beyond Brentwood was glorious country, historic places, and Witham, home of Crittall, and the place I first came across the lecturer’s advice: ‘always try to get inside a person’s frame of reference; then you can’t go wrong.’ (Want a bet?) And I should have been more questioning of that slur. When my colleague described Essex as the arsehole of England, he was merely referring to the topography of the south east.

      January 29, 2013 at 19:14

      Essex is doomed John, it will shortly be Fordless, even as we blog hordes of ex Fordettes are heading up the MI into the arms of JLR or across the German sea and down the A3 to Merkenich and pastures anew . Essex, minus the blue oval, end of an era, post industrial Essex is upon us.

    January 29, 2013 at 23:52

    As ever, I enjoyed JM’s unique take on history, architecture – well, on everything. One or two things didn’t stack up: the usual (not so) veiled attack on vegetarians (yes, yes, I am one), the lumping of the almost entirely political movement Chartism with the utopian cults (I think all but one of the Chartists’ demands – that of annual parliaments – have come to be), the denigration of ALL conscientious objecters as cowards (that last one is particularly objectionable). All in all, though, a thought-provoking hour.

      Suzanne Peake
      February 3, 2013 at 13:10

      To me the gratuitous insult of conscientious objectors was the last straw. I used to be impressed with Jonathan Meades for the reasons others here have specified, but after seeing the last three of his programmes I’ve come to perceive him primarily as a mean-spirited blowhard with an undeserved soapbox.

    January 30, 2013 at 08:28

    All you lot are familiar with Jonathan Meades. I’m not, so to discover him – and Essex – was a joy unconfined. I got the hang of tracking his syntax after about 10 minutes, and then yipped with pleasure as he slammed into one cliche after another. Excellent stuff. I don’t really mind if all conscientious objectors were not cowards (as many clearly were not). I just so much enjoy the robust views being stated in these days of coercive thinking and bland conformity. And it was so interesting and informative.

  9. Worm
    January 30, 2013 at 08:29

    My father’s review last night – “Too much radio, not enough Essex.”

    In my opinion he squeezed in some great barbed swipes of the kind that you very rarely hear on the BBC, for which he is to be applauded. Was great to see my beloved Jaywick get a slow-mo tracking shot or three

  10. Brit
    January 30, 2013 at 08:50

    Amazing how many failed utopian communities Essex can boast.

    Quote of the programme: “‘Accessible’ – which merely means comprehensible to morons…”

      January 30, 2013 at 10:14

      Or….Cheshire, another county besmirched by footballers. Meades take on life will obviously polarise opinion and that’s how it should be, rather than a cliché ridden hour I would say he has the ability to put into words things that we know but fail to. The conscientious objectors stuff, cowardly may not be the best colour to paint them, many feel that they were quite happy to suffer for their conscience and, when the hail of arrows stopped, went back to leading the life they had enjoyed, courtesy of the poor sods who made it possible, in that sense may we not accuse them of parasitic hypocrisy.

    Ashley Law
    January 30, 2013 at 17:01

    Meades on Essex – What you also “saw” but you missed was a sky streaked with chemical trails and chemical induced “clouds” in nearly every other shot. especially those of West Mersea and surrounds.
    These trails are a compound mix of Barium salts, Stontium, Alumina, nano fiber particles and other sulphidic oxides..Nice

    Bedd Gelert
    February 1, 2013 at 22:37

    Jonathan Meades = Greatest Living Englishman.

    Unsurpassed. And unsurpassable.

    The dimwits at the BBC won’t publish his entire back catalogue on DVD ‘because of the cost’..

    Imbeciles. Morons. Cretins.

    They could just cancel Eastenders, and easily find the money.

    But of course why prioritise quality and genius, when you have the plebs to keep happy.

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