From Martin Clunes to Stephen Fry to Billy Connolly (at least twice), America is some way from being uncharted TV travelogue territory. For Channel 4’s architecture man George Clarke, therefore, the challenge in his Adventures in Americana was to justify the jolly.
Part of his retort came in the title: “Americana” implied that Clarke wasn’t just going to be doing another road trip, he was going to be doing a cultural road trip. We were going to see some of his trademark Amazing Spaces, but we were also going to be bathed in the warm waters of their meaning. This was potentially fascinating territory, and when Clarke opened with a monologue about how Americana was a byword for nostalgia for a time when the country’s potential was exciting and bottomless, well, he had me hooked.
The disappointment was that Adventures in Americana didn’t quite have the courage to stick to its convictions and see its cultural mission through. Too often we got a brilliant insight into the origins of classic American industrial design… closely followed by the stock travelogue pabulum of celebrity goes to rodeo in a cowboy hat.
Clarke was at his best when he was allowed to delve beneath the Insta-tourist stock shots. He began in Louisiana, where his analysis of plantation housing, founded on an understanding that “old buildings are the embodiment of history,” was excellent. He moved onto the swamps of the bayou, where again he showed how the make-do-and-mend buildings of the Cajun people were an expression of a frontier culture and a tremulous history.
The scissor-arch timber design of a Texan man’s museum of Americana was, he told us, traceable back to Wells Cathedral in the 14th century. Throughout there was an underlying thesis about America’s tendency to mythologise its own past that I hope will carry through the next three parts as Clarke heads west. He’s great company and he knows his stuff – he should be allowed to show it.