Friday, June 08, 2012

The secret history of our streets remains a secret

There's been a lot of favourable comment about the first programme in the series The Secret History Of Our Streets, which dealt with the damage done to the community around Deptford High Street in the 60s and 70s. It's certainly a subject that deserves treatment, better treatment than this. This described what had happened without telling us why or how. It was a classic case of television's argument beginning and ending with the pictures it had at its disposal.

The old maps of the area which colour-coded certain streets according to the economic circumstances of the inhabitants were useful, as were the hand-written notes of the council inspectors who looked at the properties, but they clearly weren't telling even half the story. There were a few elderly market stall holders to describe how wonderful things had been, an argument that seems to make itself. A retired man who used to be on the planning committee volunteered to be filmed on the site and must have wished he hadn't, so sternly did the camera seem to look at him, drum its fingers and say it had got all day.

Instead of really tracing the story of the woman who had grown up in those streets, at a time when working class people could do very well for themselves, and ended up on a comfortable but bleak-looking development somewhere in suburban Kent, which might have told us something, it spent a few minutes with an elderly Jamaican panhandler, presumably because he was only too delighted to perform for the cameras.

It raised questions it failed to even try to answer. Who did this and why? There was no mention of the political leadership of the London County Council at the time. Maybe if they'd been Conservative there would have been. Some streets that were in worse condition than the ones demolished are now gentrified and eye-wateringly expensive. No TV producer can resist the sight of a plummy-voiced agent showing young professionals round one but it would be a lot more edifying to be told how exactly this change came about. What had happened in the 70s, 80s, 90s? What had happened last week? The film didn't go there at all, probably because it had no pictures.

I came away wanting to read a book.


  1. And that is a bad result why? This programme kicked over a rock and showed us what was underneath. It was revelatory. I'm glad it wasn't a neat thesis all tied up in one programme. I'm glad it spurred you (and others) to want more, think more, read more.

  2. Until recently I lived on the opposite side of the High street. The film.told a very partial story I suppose documentaries always do, but it was odd that the collapse.of local industry wasn'r mentioned ie the.closure of the docks and the shutting of London's first power station . Also deptford always had transitory population hence the hugenots in the film but also Vietnamese , Irish and the likes of me . Also its run down state in the 70's in part a result of a general drop on London's population (as well local art schools) gave space for artist and musicians dire straits and squeeze formed in se8 . So a complex story not that the scandals of the slum clearances aren't worth telling but they didn't happen in isolation as you say.