By Sam McIlhagga
A suited man, decked out in Ray-Ban shades and a black turtleneck, rises gigantic over the horizon. His expression is frozen, his voice near monotone, but commanding. He appears like a spectre, haunting the space he describes. The huge ghost pauses, wrinkles his brow and then declaims: ‘It was as voluptuous as a flesh-eating orchid.’ This is Meades land.
More specifically, this is Jonathan Meades’ land: a unique visual space where television collides with inventive filmmaking and dense descriptive prose. His shows for the BBC ‘are not documentaries’; instead they are, according to their creator, ‘essays, inventions and performances.’ The building his phantom image is hovering above is Gino Coppedè’s Palazzo Pastorino (1903-1910). The Palazzo Pastorino, situated in the centre of Genoa next to a romanesque church, spans three floors and is covered in white rusticated stone and spiralling neo-Baroque fixtures. The programme that has justified his superimposition over said structure is Ben Building (2016), a televisual ‘essay’ commissioned for BBC 4 on the architecture of Italian fascism.
Jonathan Meades, now aged 72, is a (former) restaurant critic, writer, actor and filmmaker. Meades is sometimes mistaken for an academic or art historian, but he was in fact educated at RADA, which he has described as a ‘Sandhurst for chorus boys.’ He is vastly different from presenters such as Andrew Graham-Dixon or Simon Schama, appearing more as an aesthetic autodidact and a natural performer. As Meades tells me: ‘my preoccupations are very different from those of historians. Most historians can’t make television because they don’t know how: they don’t know how to perform ... I’m more of a writer and a journalist.’
He started a career in journalism in the 1970s and from 1982 he began food writing for Tatler, later becoming the Times restaurant critic until 2000. His first major television appearance is The Victorian House (1987), for Channel 4, which explored a defining aspect of British urban and semi-urban landscape: the terraced redbrick house. Over the next three decades, he has gone on to explore caravan parks, Aberdeen, Plymouth’s dockyards, the architecture of pubs, the geography of Northern Europe, Belgium’s obsession with incredibly niche museums, Surrealism, Brutalism and the beauty of Essex.
Meades is very definite and particular about television and the films he makes: he declared to a British Film Institute interviewer that he ‘despises presenters as a breed.’ He tells me that: ‘I saw an article [Mary Beard] wrote in the TLS in which she said that she went into a studio to put words to the pictures her production team had found. I thought, “God this is completely the wrong way around.” One should write a very, very tight script and then one should film it.’ It is often these scripts which capture the viewer first: they are more referential and allusive than any other programming one might find on the BBC.
I discovered Jonathan Meades’s beguiling and intriguing videos at age 17 and, thanks to YouTube’s all-powerful algorithms, my teenage perception was via a stray link completely and radically changed. I would excitedly tell all who would listen that ‘Meades Shrine,’ the channel where the writer’s collected television work is housed by an anonymous source, ‘changed the way I see.’ Years later, I still credit this series of strange videos as forming the way I think: something which Meades, a strong individualist and original thinker, would probably condemn as passive and dull.
Meades’ fans, if we can call them that, treat his analysis of space, buildings and culture with a near reverence. A recent Vice interview with the critic left a presenter gushing and fawning in near idiocy. A roundtable at Oxford Brookes with Meades and the writer Iain Sinclair prompted the two academics introducing the speakers to soliloquise at length on Meades’ work. In short, his vision of the world can be terrifyingly total and massively influential.
However, Meades rejects this measurement, or indeed any measurement, of his work: ‘I’m absolutely indifferent to the effect of my shows and indeed of my writing. Régis Jauffret said that he despises writers who take into account readers’ reactions. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but close, close ...’
In 1994, BBC 2 commissioned Jerry Building: Unholy Relics of the Third Reich and in 2006 Joe Building: The Stalin Memorial Lecture. These two programmes would begin, despite the gap of twelve years, a series of work on totalitarian architecture of which Ben Building is also a part. This August, BBC 4 released Meades’ fourth show on the architecture of totalitarianism, Franco Building: Mass Tourism, which examined Spanish architecture under Franciso Franco’s regime (1936-1975). Meades explains that the title has two resonances: ‘I was interested in “Mass Tourism” which played on the idea of “mass” as a sacred ceremony and tourism en masse.’ These two ideas bookmark Franco Building in the form of an exploration of the Camino de Santiago and the development of Benidorm and the Costa Blanca.
The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) is a network of pilgrimage routes across northern Spain and Southern France that end at Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the eponymous saint are claimed to be held. The Camino pilgrimage declined after the Middle Ages only to be revived by Walter Starkie’s The Road to Santiago (1957) and fascist Spain’s own interest in promoting Catholic history.
The Costa Blanca and other costas (coasts) across Spain have become fixed in the British consciousness, thanks to comedies and sitcoms such as Duty Free (1984), Benidorm (2007-2018) and Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents (2011-2015) as sites of excessive consumption and low-grade cultural imperialism. Tourism and commercialism play an important role in Meades’ understanding of Spain under fascism. The Camino and Benidorm were ‘both means of attracting foreign money to an economically and culturally isolated country’. Spain was isolated because, as Franco Building states: ‘The nationalists [fascists and monarchists] aimed to establish a state that was variously rural, insular, Catholic, monarchist, intolerant, vengeful, fascist, pre-Reformation. These were seen as virtues. They yearned for the Middle Ages.’
Instead, Meades describes how Franco and the Falange Española’s (the Spanish fascist party) virtues were turned on their head by the forces of the market. Whereas the tourism encouraged by the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage was pietistic and in line with the regime, the growth of the holiday resort of Benidorm, organised by the Francoist Pedro Zaragoza, was not.
As Franco Building explains: ‘Carefully tended isolationism ceded to coarse cosmopolitanism... piety and totalitarian order was overthrown by the pursuit of elemental pleasure, by foreigners who had no idea where they were.’ When I asked Meades whether the impulses of consumer capitalism and mass tourism would ultimately win out against moralistic authoritarian rulers, he casually assured me that: ‘pleasure always beats piety. Given the choice, 92% of priests would rather risk cardiac arrest during a strenuous bout of group sex than officiate at Mass.’
Franco Building provides evidence of this impulse in the sublime modernist churches of Miguel Fisac and the quiet resistance of liberal clergy and liberation theology during the regime. These attitudes went against Franco’s own aesthetic tastes, which the show describes as an ‘ostentatiously backwards-looking programme of building: process[ing] into the past ... Franco’s mission was to exhume the omnipotent Imperial Spain of the Habsburgs of Philip II.’
And yet: ‘[Franco] was neither prescriptive nor proscriptive. He is odd in that he was a dictator who didn’t exploit the autocratic possibilities of building,’ Meades tells me. Because of this ‘there was a lot of really good, off-the-wall stuff done in Spain during his long reign.’ Franco and, to an extent, Mussolini’s loose policy on architecture brings into question the idea of a ‘fascist building’. Meades is certainly sceptical about it: ‘There is no such thing as a fascist style. There’s only fascist size in that they liked to build big.’
One such building is Franco’s Ejercito Del Aire (Ministry of Air) in Madrid, influenced by the Habsburg El Escorial (1584) which takes on the size and grandeur of counter-reformation architecture via a diminished pastiche. The sixteenth-century El Escorial, built under the patronage of Philip II’s expansive Spanish Empire and funded by said empire’s South American gold, materially represents the hegemony of Hispanic power. The building’s main architect, Juan de Herrera (1530-1597) and his use of maximalist scale and minimalist ornamentation fully realises the intention behind state structures and their expression of domination. The Ejercito Del Aire building (1958) does not achieve this; it instead clutches at the image of a lost ‘golden age’ while squatting over a cosmopolitan and diverse quarter of Madrid, its scale swallowed up by the city’s buildings and ongoing life.
Another very big building and therefore, in Meades’ mind, another very fascist building is Franco’s monument to the dead of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Valle de Los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen). The complex, which includes a gravesite, basilica and a crucifix which can be seen from 40km away, is close to Madrid and is considered the defining evocation of Franco’s government.
However, on 24 October this year the dictator’s remains were exhumed from his tomb in the Valle de Los Caídos by order of the Spanish government. This move has sparked controversy in Spain over the meaning and standing of visual monuments with less than savoury connotations, something which seems to be a global phenomenon: Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue and Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes come to mind.
Franco Building hesitates to take a definite moral stance on the issue, instead asking: ‘[Should] collective memory, and collective memory loss, be responsive to legislation? A well-intentioned, morally justified, government [that is] instructing its people how to remember a despised former government is, obviously, going to be accused of aping what former governments dictate ... There is governmental resolve, parliamentary determination: but the country is divided.’
However, Meades himself is very definite about how we should approach Franco and the government’s motivations in exhuming his body: ‘Why is Spain exhuming Franco? Oh...um...revenge! I think that the only way one can look at it. There is, additionally, the question of Mussolini’s birthplace and Franco’s Valle de Los Caidos being shrines and attracting people who are almost stupid enough to be in Johnson’s cabinet.’
‘It’s not really a body [at this point,] it’s a reputation,’ he adds. A reputation which is still so vivid that the Spanish Left’s droll reply to the pomposity of the Valle de Los Caidos is ‘esta es una tumba en la que cagarse’ (this is a tomb to shit on).
This retort is not without reason. The construction of the Valle de Los Caidos was one of the biggest operations using forced labour (mostly captured republicans and socialists) outside of Germany in the twentieth century. Franco Building, along with the other three programmes that make up Meades’ quartet, revels in an incredibly clear anti-totalitarian rhetoric which leaves no space for equivocation. Even on the topic of Stalin, to which many artists and thinkers have been forgiving (think Sartre), his ire is obvious and biting. His assessment of Franco’s monument is equally candid: ‘It’s hypocrisy made stone, a shrine to a merciless absolutist and an insult to everyone else save those diseased nostalgics who still worship him.’
But, Franco Building is also aware of the wider historical cost of all large buildings and the unequal burdens they place on contemporary memory: ‘The inhuman resources and construction methods of [Spain’s] abundant castles and churches ought also to be reckoned shameful. One difference is that memories of the actual making of those structures dissipate over centuries, over millennia. The structure remains whilst the reckoning ... becomes largely unknowable ... Stones endure, but they’re no help, they have nothing to say.’
Meades appeared on BBC Newsnight in 2018 declaring that Brexit was ‘a catastrophe’ and that ‘people didn’t know what they were voting for.’ The reaction on Twitter inevitably branded him as ‘smug,’ ‘elitist’ and ‘out of touch’. However, Franco Building contains its own unique appreciation of cultural, rather than political, populism in its exploration of Benidorm: ‘It is a marvellously strange anomaly. It resists all sophistication, it’s an affront to cool, it’s a poke in the eye for minimalism... By the artless people, for the artless people: without the guiding intercession of the cultured bourgeoise with its patronising worker worship.’
Meades seems to genuinely enjoy what we might call ‘material culture’ and his programme makes deft use of technicolour home and news footage: tourists riding donkeys, topless men astride pedalos, football scorecards and bullfighting posters. He uses these images to make the point that ‘ideology was dumped on by the market,’ and that ‘displays of flesh ... displays of public drunkenness by Engerland-land’s finest,’ were causative factors in making Franco’s martial and Catholic regime look ridiculous. This is most tellingly done when Meades juxtaposes himself between a moustachioed Spanish police officer and an English skinhead decked out in sovereign rings and a singlet. In this contest, the police officer loses.
Yet he is strongly sceptical about the rise of political populism. Meades states early on in the programme, in a fearful tone, that: ‘Franco was blessed with low cunning: he knew his people.’ I asked him whether he thought political populism really had a link to ‘the people’ and whether leaders, such as Trump, Le Pen and Johnson, really have an understanding of some transcendent group psychology?
‘Populism means authority second-guessing “the people” and the wretched “will” of the people. It doesn't always guess right. Having said that, it is inescapable that tyranny was a fashion in the mid-twentieth century and may be so again. Democracy is a recent creation and, equally, a frail creation in need of constant protection,’ Meades replies.
I end the interview by asking him if there could ever be an architecture of populism to match the twentieth century’s ‘architecture of totalitarianism’.
‘I don’t read entrails. What one can be sure of, however, it that stylistically architects are blind to the regimes they work in. But the types of building they are called on to design may be determined by the state, or commerce, so in that regard, they are captives of the regime they operate in,’ Meades answers - with the caveat that ‘Architecture possesses only the most elementary vocabulary ... it’s like clothes, a series of signals, a code without nuances.’
SAM MCILHAGGA is completing an MPhil at Cambridge. He has lived and worked in Chile and America. He likes the left-field, the uncertain and the chaotic.
Art by Abigail Hodges