A portly man emerges from a London townhouse, accompanied by some lite jazz. He’s wearing what used to be called a ‘car coat’ and carries a briefcase. He unlocks a dented Morris Minor and wobbles off up the road. This is the start of Ian Nairn’s journey north. Here’s two reasons you might think Nairn Across Britain isn’t for you: a) it’s about architecture, and b) it’s from 1972. But trust me, this series is relentlessly brilliant and strange.
Nairn, a camera-shy architectural critic, makes an unlikely TV frontman. As he wends his way to Scotland, he considers a country caught between a debated past and an obscure future. He defends some monstrous buildings, decries destructive town planners and scorns the twee. There’s a magical passage about gliders on the downs near Dunstable, an impassioned defence of an about-to-be-demolished shopping arcade in Northampton and much eloquence about canals. He is often hilarious: there’s a description of a glum Leicestershire village as having ‘laid down and died’. There’s a curious eighteenth-century quality to it all, like Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain’ rewritten by an oddball vicar or an over-imaginative Labour backbencher.
Nairn is the kind of eccentric, vividly insightful man you rarely see on TV
So, why should you watch it? Well, firstly because Nairn is the kind of eccentric, vividly insightful man you rarely see on TV now. He’s got zero pose, and is totally unafraid to be critical. Just as importantly, though, he examines what Britain is through what it looks like. When he uses the term ‘community’ it means something. Today, when our national identity is constantly mediated and marketed back to us, his ability to see beyond the emptily nostalgic feels almost seditious.