Jonathan Meades, ex-restaurant reviewer, writer and broadcaster has finally turned his gaze to the Isle of Lewis.
Following on from his 2008 Magnetic North series where he dissects and celebrates the culture of Northern Europe, Meades perambulates around Scotland for Off Kilter and skewers the usual sacred cows as he does so.
Part Alan Wicker, part Andy Warhol, part Gilbert and/or George, Meades approaches his geographical subject as a gentleman and then proceeds to quite ungentlemanly profer his unsheathed opinions. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, he often knows far more about his destination than even the residents and armed with this knowledge and a Will Self-esque talent for verbosity allows his viewers to revel in his particular slant on their world. And so it was for the Isle of Lewis as he landed, perched atop the prow of a Seatrek RIB and set foot upon the shores of Traigh Na Beirigh to declare the place paradise, albeit one in decay.
Decades of documentaries on the island have trod the same, well-worn paths, either wrapping themselves in tartan and tweeds or pitying the pious, bible-beaten inhabitants. Not so for Mr Meades. For the first time I can remember, here we had a truly authentic outside view of the long island, warts and all.
As is always his way, simple aesthetics provided the cue to draw in sociology and politics. Aspects of island culture and history were tied to places jaw-droppingly captured by the men behind the cameras. We had Guga, served at a middle-of-nowhere picnic table on a damp day and politely refused by the presenter as he told of the ten men of Ness who sail each year to make their catch. He then seamlessly segues into a childhood memory of his disdain at eating whale as a child before cutting to the ruined station at Bunavoneader and carrying on about fish farming.
We had the architectural effects of Calvanism not just on houses of residence but that of worship contrasting their grey, banality with Rodel and the, seemingly pretentious in comparison, Dualchas designed Old Mission house at Brenish.
He stands at Callanish and questions whether stones such as these should really be imbibed with the importance often ascribed to them. Isn’t it possible they could simply be a case of Stone Age OCD?
He props up the corner of Cromwell St on a dreich and dismal Sunday morning bemused by the silence and absence of life commenting that here on the Sabbath one is faced by a series of Don’ts, in particular Don’t Excercise. Just then a man in fluorescent yellow zips past, cutting through the grey, on a Brompton folding bike. The scene cuts to the same place on the previous night where townies are drinking and staggering from pub to pub. As Meades stares at binfuls of empty bottles we see a barman the night before having to cross the road to find a bin that wasn’t full to add his collection to. Meades goes on to suggest it may be the hangovers that keep everyone in on the seventh day but notes that the silence and Sabbath keeping is enviable even for purely anti-capitalism, burger-stench free secular reasons.
He covered machair and marram, runs and rigs, peats and moors, obelisks and menhirs (having a dig at nu-celts and wicca worshipers at the same time). He pulled no punches on the opium-soaked Matheson. At Abhain Dearg distillery he compares the loss of whisky to that of Gaelic, its threatened status he is quick to highlight and defend. He declares Marag Dubh the King of boudin noirs
Finally he focusses on the profusion of decay. In a place where it’s easier (and cheaper) to let mother nature take care of the demolition, tools of industry, outhouses, cars and other detritus are simply abandoned and allowed to fall apart. He likens the Isle of Rust’s beauty to decaying meat, mould on fruit, a Francis Bacon painting. He ponders, as many of us have, the appearance of a motorcar in the middle of the moor, miles from the nearest road. But even here, at its ugliest and made analagous to a scrap cult, things just came alive. Staggeringly beautiful, deeply saturated, shots of tractors and old shielings bathed in that rare Lewis light you only get at a certain time at the end of a really good day. Indeed, this period of shooting sees the skies clear and landscape transform into something quite magical.
The whole 50 minute section of episode two was accurate, arch, wry and dry but most of all fun. Essential viewing for anyone who sees the island through rose-tinted specs, something Jonathan obviously refuses to wear. Wrapping up his visit up he observes the island’s isolation as un-Scottish, blisfully free of tartan and home to a people very much out there, on their own, walking the line between the old world of modernity and the new of a less salubrious future.
WATCH ON BBC iPLAYER (skip the first 10 mins if you want to cut to the chase)
UPDATE!: Now on youTube.