At a time when television seems to be terminally dumbed down, Jonathan Meades' occasional programmes are a real exception, and his current series on BBC2, Abroad Again, is proving to be one of his best. Each one is 50 minutes long, so Meades isn't just skating over the surface of his chosen topic, and while the visual gags can seem relentless and irritating, he certainly has something to say - abetted by sharp editing and well-chosen soundtracks.
This series began with a revealing account of how Meades' sensibility was formed. Describing himself as 'a midget autodidact' as a child, Meades was left to his own devices on his frequent trips with his father (a travelling salesman), and developed a feeling not just for architecture but for place. In this 'eccentric education in townscape', he was oblivious to conventional wisdom: that Georgian architecture was admired and Victorian dismissed, for instance, or that 'stone was nobler than brick'. So his writings and programmes (like those of his predecessor Ian Nairn) are always personal and often provocative.
Still to come in the present series is Heaven: Folkwoven in England on Wednesday 29 May and Stowe: Reading a Garden on 6 June. The first is Meades' take on the Garden City, specifically Letchworth, in which Ebenezer Howard gets a rough ride: 'Indifference to architecture; insensibility to topography. No wonder he's considered the father of English town planning.' Nor does the Arts & Crafts movement fare much better: 'Architects who deluded themselves that they were down to earth but were as twee as bunting. . . Houses like absurdly overpriced designer jeans.'
For Meades, Stowe is 'the apogee of the created landscape' (pictured above), and he leads viewers through the successive interventions of Vanbrugh, Gibbs, Kent and 'Capability' Brown - 'as averse to straight lines as Frank Gehry'.
Though Inskip + Jenkins isn't namechecked, Meades applauds its restoration of Stowe's garden buildings, which helps keep Stowe's 'capacity for illusion' intact, unlike many truly antique sites in Greece or Italy where 'the 21st century insists on gatecrashing'. There's much to enjoy in these programmes.