Englishmen who know all about stuff
26 April 2010
It was Thursday night and Joadja and I were flopped in front of telly watching the latest Englishman who knows all about something.
This one was a keffiyah-wearing Anglican Arabist who lives in the Yemen and he was taking us all along in search of Muhammad Ibn Battuta, the 14th Century Arab traveller who made Marco Polo look like a Sunday excursionist.
“Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Isn’t he just lovely”, said Joadja.
I had to agree. I’d leaned something already. I’d thought a tangerine was a piece of fruit and already I’d discovered it was somebody who hails from Tangiers. Where does the BBC find this never-ending cavalcade of wonderful Englishman who know all about something, who impart knowledge so effortlessly, so pleasurably.
“And speaking of Arabs”, I remarked, unscrewing a bottle of Old Tranglefoot Best Dry Cider, “just recently there was the lovely English Muslim who went in search of Islamic science in the historical bit between the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance”.
“Yeah, wasn’t that fascinating. That was Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist, and a Baghdadi, apparently”.
“And what about that madly enthusiastic Englishman who knew all about the history of India. You remember, with a limp and a blue scarf”.
“And a satchel . That was Michael Wood, he was also the Englishman who knew all about Alexander the Great, and back in 1980, he knew all about railways. They used to call him ‘the thinking woman’s crumpet’”.
“And last year there was the Englishman who knew about gardens. He had a satchel too. What’s with the satchel thing?”
“Ah, that was Monty Don. He was a scream!”
“How the hell do you remember all these names?” I muttered.
“How could you forget talent like this? As for the satchel, well, a traveller has to have a bag of some sort and a satchel is more casually insouciant than a daypack”.
“Hey, but my all-time favourite was the crazy buck-toothed English nun who knew all about art”.
“Now we’re going back a way. You’re talking about Sister Wendy Beckett. Wasn’t she lovely. She was a Carmelite who lived all alone in a caravan”.
“But I loved how she was always posed in her spotless wimple in front of dirty paintings by Rubens or Carravagio – waxing lyrical about flesh tones or breasts … even, if I recall rightly ‘fluffy’ pubic hair”.
“She was a natural! At the BBC they used to call her ‘One Take Wendy’”.
“Almost stranger was that recent, dreadlocked, body-building, black English theologian who looked like Dave Lister from Red Dwarf, and who went in search of Jesus”.
“Robert Beckford. I loved the episode when we was interviewing an Israeli couple who were Christian converts and a bunch of mad Zionist settlers rioted outside”.
“And I remember this bloke’s name – Tony Robinson, the Englishman who knew all about the worst jobs in history. That was fascinating. And we’ve not mentioned the ultimate effortlessly nice, knowledgable, Englishman – David Attenborough, the bloke who knows all about wildlife”.
“So what is it, how do the Poms do it?”
“Well, firstly you gotta have people who know all about things”.
“That can’t be it. There must be lots of Americans and Australians who know all about stuff”.
“Must be, but mostly they’re just lousy at telling you about it, or at least the Americans are … we wouldn’t know about Aussies because we’ve hardly done that sort of doco. The English are affable, infectiously enthusiastic, modest, even, dare I say it, self-deprecating”.
“Americans can’t do self-deprecation. They think it’s weakness or something. And they talk far too much”.
“Why doesn’t Our ABC do stuff like this?”
“Well mostly Australia just does Australian wildlife docos fronted by pseudo-rugged philosopher bushman types in khaki and silly hats. Surely there’s some personable Australian academic types who can hit the road in search of Asian art, or Asian wildlife, or the Vietnam War, or Middle Eastern archaeology or Melanesian art or excellence in public transport. Why can’t we do that?
“Just no commitment to TV as a knowledge tool. And ’cos we specialise in creepy stuff like Australian Story and even creepier metrosexual stuff like Elders with that, what’s-his-name …”
“Yeah, him. Speaking of David Attenborough, remember Denton’s creepy interview with him? Here’s a bloke who’s lived an absolutely fascinating life as a zoologist and a BBC producer and programmer and who made the blockbuster doco what it is today, and Denton just kept bringing the interview back to ‘feelings’ and other Gen-X American shit”.