Sunday, July 27, 2008

"The Knowledge"

Last night on BBC 4 there was a pleasant surprise. They were doing an evening about cab drivers in the course of which they showed "The Knowledge", Jack Rosenthal's 1979 TV drama about the two-year ordeal that people have to go through to qualify for a cab drivers' badge. When it was originally shown on ITV there were only two TV channels. Consequently everyone you knew watched it and talked about it at work afterwards.

It was interesting, particularly to Londoners, for the light it shed on what was involved in getting to commit to memory every street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. Nigel Hawthorne as the inspector they call "the vampire" emphasises that no city in the world requires its cab drivers to know even a fraction of what London asks of its own. "Not many brain surgeons either. But there you are. That's how we built an empire. Probably how we knocked the bleeder down as well."

Nowadays I work near the Public Carriage Office in London and so every day I see the men in suits smoking nervously outside on the pavement as they mug up on the direct route between Manor House and Gibson Square and the hundreds of other "runs" they still have to master. Makes you strangely proud to be a Londoner.

You can watch it here for the next week.


  1. Mornington Crescent!

    Erm, actually that's a different skillset, isn't it? Sorry - just couldn't help myself.

  2. Am I right in thinking that Mini-cab drivers take 'The Ignorance?'

    It's much quicker and merely involves an ability to swear and make racist remarks in at least four languages, whilst wearing a brown nylon short stinking of stale acrid BO.

  3. Anonymous6:40 pm

    The Knowledge was brilliant – particularly for Londoners of a certain vintage – but the most frutrating thing last night was the repeated Modern Times doc from 1996 afterwards which followed a determined beaky-nosed ex-con who was doing the Knowledge and constantly getting knocked back. If any doc was crying out for an update it was this one. Did he make it? Did he stay on the straight and narrow? Has anyone ever had him in the front of their taxi?

  4. A good blog.
    Nice to see your blog.

  5. I'm as prone to romanticising the past as anyone, Dave, but there were three TV channels in 1979, not two. (You're right though, of course, everybody did watch The Knowledge. I mainly remember the bit where Hawthorne puts two pencils up his nose.)

  6. My old man was a black cab driver before he ran away to join the theatre and apparently passed The Knowledge in a record time. I think I'm more proud of that than I am that he used to work with Larry Olivier.

  7. Could you imagine ITV showing anything as intelligent as the Knowledge nowadays?

  8. Actually, maybe I could. I haven't seen "The Knowledge" since it was first broadcast and was struck by the fact that it was just like a straight-down-the-line piece of popular entertainment, corny theme song and all. I think if anyone did it nowadays it would be the BBC and it would be a bit more pretentious. And it would be a series.

  9. Totally disagree with you there Mr Hepworth. These days, commissioning editors are only looking for big subjects, with scale... the 'grenade in the schedule' or the thing that's 'like climbing the north face of the Eiger'.

    A drama about people learning to become cab drivers, with no life & death jeopardy, no Zeitgeist-surfing point to prove about society today? Fuggedaboutit.

  10. I recently got a taxie from Dublin airport; gave the the driver my destination; he promptly inputted the destination into his sat/nav and got me to my address. No local knowledge was necessary.

    Time marches on, I suppose.