James May might well have invented the world’s dullest television show. His recent series, The Reassembler, ended this past week on BBC4. It was thing to behold. By the half way point of the very first episode, even he was forced to ask ‘has it ever got the point where the only person still interested in what’s happening is the person who is on the telly?’ That in itself is something to be admired. It takes a certain indulgence, certainly, of the BBC to permit May to take up BBC Four’s time as he reassembled a 1959 Suffolk Colt petrol lawnmower, a 1958 Bakelite telephone, and then an electric guitar.
There’s no word yet if there’ll be a director’s cut that fully conveys the tedium of watching him complete each build but, in abbreviated form, the results were spectacularly more dull than even I can make them sound. There were 331 parts when he began episode one (my personal favourite) and one ugly lawn mower when he ended. In between was like watching grass grow. Slightly sardonic grass, I grant you, but still the stuff that imperceptibility creeps towards the light.
In his downtime from Top Gear, May has grown a beard that he has maintained a little too much; part George Lucas but far too much Rolf Harris in that it fades towards his ears, leaving it to gather upon the folded skin beneath his chin where the hard clipping is too apparent. Perhaps in later shows he’ll reassemble his beard trimmer but the fact that he’s gone with a beard surely marks the final stage of his evolution into the pub know-it-all we all slide along the bar to avoid. He drinks real ale and he knows the correct word for everything. ‘Pilling’, we discover, is the name for the little balls that gather on the surface of a fabric. Then there are the ‘tappets’, the ‘valve chest’, the ‘venturi’, ‘strangler flap’ (aka the ‘choke butterfly’)… Then, to emphasise his total ascension to a level of verbosity above the normal, he casually quotes Wordsworth’s poem ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. He also hates adjustable spanners which I think tells you all you need to know about Mr James May.
Given the essential dullness of this new show, it is perhaps odd that it should also be a fine reminder of the BBC at its best. When it comes time to defend the license fee, the BBC should proudly thrust May, his beard, lawnmower and tappets to the front. It’s precisely the kind of television that only the BBC could make. It is also the kind of television that the BBC should make. In its total disregard for what might be popular, it is reminder that television can actually present a reality that is better than the world known by the viewer. This is television that could make us a better country. James May might have a superhuman degree of dullness but we should know that it’s a dullness partly derived from our own lack of depth. Given a choice between Ant & Dec or May and his pilling, we would be wise to go for the bearded man in his shed. Watch that first episode of The Reassembler and you might go off to read some Wordsworth, learn a little about the internal combustion engine, as well as feel in tune with a certain quality of British amateurism about which we should rightly feel proud.
Is it all a bit too much of a pastiche Barnes Wallis? Perhaps it is and it’s not inconceivable that May is secretly constructing his own Lancaster bomber in that shed, though May would be quick to point out that Wallis actually designed the Wellington bomber and that the Lancaster was used because it was the only aircraft capable of delivering the bouncing bomb which Wallis designed for Operation Chastise. That, however, is May’s chief gift. There is an interconnectedness in the things he does. There is a benefit in knowing how things are constructed that goes beyond simple intellectual curiosity. It is really, for want of a better word, quite political.
The British attitude towards most things has always been one of scorn, scepticism, and utter ridicule. We find ways to undermine most of the serious projects set before us. The public would name the new Antarctic research vessel Boaty McBoatFace and, in truth, we probably should. It would declare to the world that we are proud of the civic anarchy that’s found in the very best things we do. Nations such as China might be far more prolific in terms of scientific research but, in their mechanised striving for advantage, they miss that strange often twisted spirit of rebellion that is usually found in British achievements. When the Rosetta mission landed its probe on a comet, it was a Brit, Dr Matt Taylor, standing there in the command centre wearing a shirt covered by 1950s style models. He was cocking the proverbial snook to whatever was expected and, if it offended some, it was quite possibly inspiring to others. There is too much authority assigned to science, leaning, and technology in all its guises. We are held hostage to the sheer complexity of our gadgets that our subservience to them become an almost religious act of genuflection.
We should be grateful that Youtube already caters to that niche audience out to destroy that magic. Disassemblers pull apart even the most complicated technology to reveal the inner workings. Yet there is a subtle difference between pulling things to pieces and putting objects back together. Breaking things allows us to dispel the magic. It reduces something apparently beyond our understanding into objects of dull solidity: here is the battery, which we reduce to a lumps of chemical and metal. That dispels the voodoo of technology but it hardly helps us recover control. And that’s what May’s show is really about. Putting things together is about a habit of mind; about bringing technology, science, learning, or even political systems back into a human space. May is giving us power over the very things that would dominate us.
So, yes, James May has possibly made the most boring show on TV but, in some ways, it’s quite an important one too. It sets a standard and not a bad standard at that. In assembling common day objects, he is really disassembling television and reminding us that we are the masters of the medium. That is as important a lesson as any in a day and age when our mediums would quite willingly become our masters.