Following a well-timed opportunistic look at the BFI site, I picked up the last ticket to the showing of two Ian Nairn programmes followed by a Q&A with Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley, chaired by Douglas Murphy. Nairn has of course featured in several of the Tuesday Late events at RIBA, including showings of his tour of Bradford (when some modern planning mis-decision “made him burn”) and a talk about him. Arriving in the foyer of NFT3, I did wonder why people were lingering and later I realised it must have been because they were waiting for more of the essential introductory notes to be printed. As it was, I took my seat without the notes, feeling very neglected and denuded. There was an audible groan of disappointment when it was announced that owing to illness Meades would only be appearing via Skype, though at least Owen Hatherley had been added in person.
The first film, with its lively seventies theme tune, contrasted Padua with Oxford. He began by decrying the centralisation of opportunities and resources in Oxford University, with the latter being enclosed and insular. He felt that this enclosure of the mind replicated itself as students graduated in the stultifying centralising impulses of Whitehall. Nairn was almost his own critic at many points, naming the Italian city Padua, while noting that the Italian is Padova, but conceding that the Anglicisation is acceptable. He felt that one big difference was that in Padua the students were merely another set of residents, sprinkled amongst everyone else, even though there were many more of them than in Oxford. There should be maybe 2 or 3 Oxford colleges in the city itself, with the rest of them scattered throughout the country, matching the dispersion of resources in Germany.
The second film was about two Northern “Football Towns”, Huddersfield and Halifax, heralded by an even jauntier brassy theme tune. The intro by Meades claimed that he became the first ever tourist to Halifax as a result of seeing the programme when it was first broadcast. Each segment began with a view of the football ground from the hills, and Nairn imagined the experience of visiting fans arriving from the respective train stations. The Huddersfield station was described as a “palace”, which had been saved by the local Corporation from the plans of British Rail to demolish it (the demise of the Euston Arch was mentioned, of course). One small alleyway could be reminiscent of Edinburgh Old Town, but in general he decried what he described as “the big yawn” of Huddersfield, in the form of the long road from the station. Far too straight, with too much uniformity in the buildings, and uninspiring street furniture in the pedestrianised area. There was a lot to be admired in the “inner” Huddersfield, while the “outer” Huddersfield languished, and it was probably “too late to save”.
Each of the towns had a large historical edifice and he contrasted how these had been treated. In the case of Huddersfield, the Cloth Hall had been largely demolished, with part of it reconstructed in isolation in a park. Halifax had a much less impressive station, though he liked the fact that it allowed the views of the hills to dominate. Halifax’s edifice, full of demolition detritus and burning wood at the time of Nairn’s visit, was the Piece Hall. At the time, the plan was for the central courtyard to become a car park, a plan which appears to have been revised. He was very pleased with the Victorian covered market in Halifax (“one of the finest in England”), more so than with the Modernist market in Huddersfield, of which he did still approve (“marvellously human”). The debate he started continues.
One of his favourite buildings in Halifax was a church partially destroyed by fire. He wanted it to be preserved in that state, as a modern ruin (a position he repeated later with a leaning cooling tower), but didn’t think it would be. There was an interstitial caption in the programme at this point, indicating that in fact it was preserved. He liked the “attempt” of the Halifax Building Society headquarters, even if he didn’t think it was wholly successful, inasmuch as it was Halifax “expressing itself”. An instance of “strength rather than brutality”.
Returning to the initial football theme, he gave a goal by goal analysis, with the victory going to Halifax, 5-2. A controversial result, for some. The programme did remind me of a similar short film made by B. S. Johnson that I’d seen at the Manchester Literature Festival several years ago.
At this point, Meades appeared on the screen, looming at us in front of his bookcase ramparts, with the Marseille dusk streaming in from the left, and Hatherley appeared in person, with Murphy as the host. Unstructured as it was, the conversation was delightful, dipping in and out of Nairn himself, but ranging across his and Meades’ concerns, architecture and the media treatment thereof. It was hard to say whether it was architects or television commissioners who came out of the discussion worse.
They lamented “accessibility” in programmes, wondering “accessible to who?” and they decried the claims that we’re now in a post-literate society, pointing to the proliferation of blogs and small publishing presses. Meades was asked about differences between his recent documentaries, and those he made in the nineties. The lightweight equipment available now was a great boon, meaning that his recent Ben Building (which I’ve yet to watch, to my shame – I’m saving it up), was essentially made by three people. This was fortunate, though, given the radically smaller budgets, and the radically smaller time available to him. He had 10 days to make the 90 minutes of Ben Building , whereas he used to enjoy 12 days for the 30 minutes of his older programmes. Making documentaries now was like driving 1 Smart car, while it used to be more like a convoy. There were problems in the past, when elements of the convoy got lost on the way… Related to this, Meades felt that nowadays the bigger the programme budget is, the worse the results (he did give specific citations here, but I’ll avoid the potential libel).
All three of them decried the predictability and timorousness of modern television, as opposed to earlier times when there was something unusually intelligent (such as Nairn) that you weren’t expecting. “Chance and accident” have disappeared, depriving us of the pleasure of “things we weren’t looking for”. They pointed to a strain of interesting programming on landscape and townscape and what it was like to make them. Meades referred to “the safety blanket behind you of the building”, buildings which acted as springboards into discussions of politics and fashion. Authors and works he cited included Craig Raine, Alec Clifton-Taylor’s “The pattern of English building” and “Six English towns”, and of course Ray Gosling.
Architects themselves endured several broadsides. “Architecture afflicts us and affects us, consoling or menacing”, Meades said, and in programmes about architecture, architects are the problem.
“Don’t ask the pig about charcuterie.”
Architects talking about their work are “conventionalised in the extreme”, nor can they write. An interview with the Smithsons was referred to, with Alison Smithson resembling Kevin Rowland in her haughty disdain for the people who would occupy the buildings she was designing. Meades expressed hope for people such as Hatherley himself, Tom Wilkinson and Oliver Wainwright, and encouraged them to write more, and even to make documentaries. He said that it was healthy to receive a dose of humility, “like an enema”, when comparing the audiences for his programmes now with what he used to achieve in twenty years ago.
“Know how you’re regarded by how you’re treated”.
Hatherley contrasted the treatment of architecture on television with series such as the music Britannia documentaries, which treat the audience as more intelligent.
They circled back to Nairn, as such an unlikely TV presenter, another example being Keith Floyd, whom Meades knew. Floyd used to badger him into drinking early in the morning and when Meades refused, Floyd would search the hotel for a companion, because he needed someone to drink with, otherwise it was too painful. They lamented the slow decline of Nairn owing to drink, and that the fact that he effectively drank himself to death on beer was particularly horrible, and in fact largely visible in the programmes he made towards the end of the seventies. Nairn always had a “massive melancholy”, as seen in the Finding Follies series. Nevertheless, he and other eccentrics like him slipped through onto the medium because it was the period before channel controllers became omnipotent. David Rudkin (whose wonderful Penda’s Fen I saw as part of the Alan Clarke retrospective at the BFI) and Peter Nichols were cited, as was an anecdote from Tom Stoppard who, asked why he never appeared on TV anymore, replied that he “was never asked”. Someone in the audience wondered whether it was significant that all of these people mentioned came from the regions, not London, and the panel agreed with this. Meades remembered a Lynn Barber interview with Keith Floyd, in which she said that there was “something provincial about him”.
Nairn preferred places to people, and Meades agreed with him to the extent that he thought it was problematic to introduce real people into these programmes, because it leads towards naturalism, which he dislikes. He decried architectural photography as nearly always being a lie, which is idealised and removes context, and excoriated “witless newsreaders on subjects outside their ken”. The final lament was that programme makers constantly forgot that television is an auditory as well as a visual medium.
This is rather chaotic account but I hope it conveys a feel of what was a marvellously enjoyable discussion that felt like a secret treat, and doesn’t traduce what the participants actually said too egregiously.