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TV Review: Magnetic North

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With television all too keen to turn viewers into content, and still reeling blindly in its reaction to the Internet's instant reactivity, I'm glad there's still a place for an Expert to sit us down and tell us something. 

Magnetic North presenter, and Droopy-alike, Jonathan Meades may, I suspect, have what we British refer to as the Marmite effect on viewers. Marmite is a yeasty, glutinous spread, which to some is nectar of the Gods; to others it pours from Satan's most pustulant pores; neutrality is not an option.

I'm happy to spread my buttery toast with Meade's dolorous intoning and occasional clowning — miming, with a coal-blackened face to a North-praising chanson — and have enjoyed his previous, indulgently eccentric, musings on art, architecture and culture. 

Occupying the slot vacated by Andrew Graham-Dixon's series on Spanish art, it shares its predecessors need for a thesis to antithesis: GD had it that Spanish art was neglected; Meades that the North doffs its cultural cap too readily to the Southern European. 

Whatever.

Arras is the start of his journey, the line in the terroirs where beer replaces wine to wash down the humble herring that runs as a staple up the North Sea coast. Northern art, he argues, is all about detail and finer brush strokes than the sun-bathing southern impressionists. From beer he's on to schnapps, vodka and Geneva; shortened to Gin in London, where it was the society-wrecking crack cocaine of the 18th Century.

"Intoxication is an elemental human need," Meades tells us in his Flanders-flat phonics, but he has a point to make in his cups – fruit festers and ferments off its own bat. These resourceful Northerners had to work to fullfil their elemental piss-up needs, which is, perhaps, why they love it so much.

I say they rather than we because Meades is on a European tour here. He exempts Great Britain from his north and latitude be damned because our islands are in thrall to the South.

Gothic architecture is more vulgar and human than the Classical; the well regulated proportions beloved of tyrants. Bosch, Vermeer and Holbein (to whom Britain's court was once entirely in thrall) have their modern heirs, producing photo-realistic, warts-and-all portraits of, among others, our host.

He finds in the North, the birth of modern secular religion, where the free-trading Hansa cities cared for no God but Mammon, and were thus tolerant of trade, be it in weapons for the religious wars of those pesky southerners, or sex or herring.

There are probably reasons beyond travelers' propaganda why Venice is not labeled the Birmingham of the South rather than vice versa, but with Meades the making of the point and the journey and the joy of his shows.

Go North young man.

The second of two parts is shown on Thursday and you can watch it on the BBC i-player (only available to play in the UK) until then.

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