Television: LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
English viewers feeling a sense of superior contempt after the events on the Garvaghy road yesterday, would have done well to watch "Dame Henrietta's Dream", Omnibus's programme (BBC1) about Hampstead Garden Suburb. Sharon Maguire's sly film began as a sunlit exercise in local history - detailing the faintly priggish philanthropy of Dame Henrietta Barnett, who bought a huge estate at the end of the newly extended tube line "so that all classes could live together". The community would have no pubs and no shops and there were to be no fences or walls to divide the inhabitants, only hedges (she obviously didn't know that privet is among the most divisive substances known to man, a plant that can turn the most equable person into a curtain-twitching maniac).

At first, Maguire displayed the place as a pretty retreat from the urban sprawl that surrounds it, a place whose surviving eccentricities were largely benign - a matter of amateur dramatics and Neighbourhood Watch quizzes. But, as her film proceeded, it became clear that there was something very odd about the place - it was as if a small Swiss canton had been set down in the midst of North London, complete with the stifling social order and faint xenophobia one associates with that country. This was most explicit when residents were debating the eruv, a notional border- fence composed of telegraph poles and wire which, as I understand it, converts a public space into an honorary interior. As a result, orthodox Jews can carry objects and push baby-buggies on the Sabbath without infringing their religious duties. This sounds a bit like cheating to outsiders (and to some orthodox Jews, too - who worry about hanging their clean consciences on such a fragile line), but hardly the stuff of denominational hatred.

Not so in Hampstead Garden Suburb, where the proposal to erect an eruv has divided the community as effectively as a barbed-wire fence. Resisters complain that the strict planning regulations have been set aside for political expediency; advocates insist on the near-invisibility of the wire and hint darkly at anti-Semitism among their opponents. This is a dangerous accusation to throw around (and it is clear that, in most cases, the small-mindedness involved is spotlessly undiscriminating, quite as liable to descend on Anglican old ladies who feed pigeons or agnostics who don't mow their lawns often enough). But, even if you could understand the mild impatience of those opposed to the eruv (and even if the cynical thought crossed your mind that "live and let live" is not always understood as a reciprocal deal by the rigidly devout), there was something troubling about the euphemisms employed by some protesters - "It would attract the wrong type of individual," said one man, querulously. What could he possibly mean but Jewish types of individual?

Sharon Maguire's film did not observe these matters dispassionately - using the routine activities of the suburb to comment on the inflamed hostilities. This wasn't always subtle - she cut at one point from the local amateur theatre's production of Murder in the Cathedral to a Jewish opponent of the eruv: "Traitor, traitor," chanted the knights, in between a passionate explanation that the eruv would create a de facto ghetto. But she had a nice eye for Ayckbournian social comedy and the tangled ironies of a Utopia gone sour. "You take someone else's perch at your peril," explained the embattled pigeon fancier towards the end of the programme. She was talking about bird-brains who had a biological excuse for their aggressive territoriality.

Secret History's account (C4) of the attempt to break the sound barrier achieved what I would have thought to be well nigh impossible. It made the subject a little bit dull. I don't know why this should be, because they had a proper story (the British snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, once again) and all the relevant heroes. It may simply be that I'm about to hit puberty, after many happy years as a small boy.

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