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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Jonathan Meades - The Joy of Essex (Television Special) - Review

“I come not from heaven, but from Essex”.

Jonathan Meades fronts this hour-long television programme for BBC Four, available on YouTube. Meades is an English writer and filmmaker whose interests are primarily concerned with place, culture, and the history of architecture. An unusual figure, he spends the entirety of this documentary hidden behind a pair of a tinted sunshades and a long black coat, but an intellectual one. He has a distinct eloquent use of the English Language that breathes a highbrow element into programmes that would potentially otherwise be simple location documentaries. His use of history throughout this episode not only makes the documentary educational but examples a sense of an understanding of the history of place. Meades’s presence gives the programme a surreal feeling about it, as you watch him flex his verbal muscles without flinching. The surrealist approach is continued by the splicing of random – sometimes humorous – radio clips from Essex FM stations whilst Meades drives around the county – not uttering anything until he’s out of the car. He also appears to not be following any route, instead just cutting to accidental settings – showing the difference between television like this and general travel documentaries.

The Joy of Essex revolves around the eponymous county– my home county – and Meades stands in front of various landmarks for short shots throughout. Towns such as Wivenhoe – the place of my childhood household, Hadleigh – the home of one of my uncles, Frinton – where my aunt once opened a coffee shop, Harwich – the birth town of my mother and Colchester – including Castle Park, where I formerly worked, all appear throughout for brief moments. Whilst standing in front of these beautiful backdrops, Meades retells stories from the county’s past, aiming to break the stereotype that has unfortunately become of Essex. At the very beginning, Meades explains how Essex has become one of the counties of England that has suffered most with stereotypes.

Immediately, Meades rifts on Essex figures such as Amy Childs and the stars of The Only Way is Essex whilst shouting “look”. As he does this, the beautiful landscapes that are lost behind the TOWIE foreground are shown. It’s a genius opening to the programme, immediately presenting to the audience that there is more to Essex than spray tans and cockney refugee camps. Essex has been shaped historically by its closeness to London and Meades talks on how the East End has flooded into Essex – aiming to find utopia, but in fact has turned the county into the dust bin of the capital. Overspill towns such as Basildon and Harlow are examples Meades talks about. This will be a key feature of my own walk along the A12. I will be retracing the steps of those who have made this move, so the documentary was vital viewing. I liken it to be a revision guide of my own county. Alongside this connection, it is also personally pleasing to witness Meades giving Essex the true affections it deserves. This is another component of what will be within my own psychogeography piece. I aim to give Essex a truer representation.

Alongside aiding the historical background of my piece, The Joy of Essex gave me a great opportunity to think more about where I will visit along my walk. Many of the settlements he mentioned are in fact along the A12 and it will be fascinating to include snippets of the work camps, colonies and cultist figures that are cited throughout. It truly got me thinking of what I will include in my piece. There are figures who I hadn’t considered – such as Charles Holden, the Crittall family or William Booth, but now they are relevant. I must finally comment on sequences during the programme that talk on architecture – as Meades shows the audience examples of some that stick out from others throughout the county – with various modernist buildings scattered about. Akin to my above review, these also supplement my reading of Boom Cities.

Jonathan Meades - The Joy of Essex (Television Special) is available to watch on YouTube here.

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