Power struggle: The National Grid was created to provide energy for all - but that's when the problems really began

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In 1920s Britain, electricity was rare, unreliable and expensive. Then the Government started building the National Grid to provide energy for all – and the problems really began, says Gerard Gilbert

It's breakfast time. Perhaps you're reading this article online, having made yourself a cup of tea and some toast. Maybe your children are watching television before they go to school, your partner/spouse/whatever is loading the washing machine before going to work, and, as soon as you have finished this, you must remember to unpack the dishwasher, iron your top and recharge your mobile phone.

Electricity: where would we be without it? For the vast majority of us, we'd be back in the 1920s.

Just 85 years ago, a little more than the span of the average female life, coal and gas ruled, and only 6 per cent of households had access to any electricity at all. Those that did were sold it by a hotchpotch of private companies and municipal councils, the system such a mess that one street could be supplied with a completely different voltage to the next. And it was impossibly expensive for the ordinary householder – the price of keeping five light-bulbs illuminated costing the equivalent of an average week's wages. It's enough to make you look upon your next npower or EDF bill slightly more benignly.

Meanwhile the British peered enviously across the Channel at the bright lights of France and Germany, where powerful centralised states generated twice as much electricity as our own ragbag of privatised companies (does that sound familiar?). Our cities were dark and dingy in comparison to Paris and Berlin, but more importantly, our industry was suffering from a lack of that vital spark. Something had to be done – and the unlikely fellow who finally did it was not a centralising socialist inspired by Lenin's dictum that "Communism is Soviet power plus electrification", but a pipe-smoking Conservative prime minister with a visceral dislike of nationalisation. Step forward Stanley Baldwin.

Baldwin laid the Electricity (Supply) Act before Parliament in 1926 – the same year (significantly, for the employment that flowed from the Bill) as the National Strike. It created the Central Electricity Board, which then embarked on the single biggest peacetime construction project that Britain had ever seen: the National Grid – 4,000 miles of transmission cable connecting 122 of the most efficient power stations in the country. It would take 100,000 men five years to complete, and its construction is detailed in the opening episode of BBC4's The Secret Life of the National Grid, a gem of a new three-part TV series from the makers of The Secret Life of Motorways and The Secret Life of Airports.

"The thing about motorways and airports is that the average person has an immediate relationship with them," says Gaby Hornsby, who has produced all three series. "The National Grid is more pervasive and has had a much bigger impact on our lives, but there's this weird disjunct between how reliant we are on the National Grid and how little we feel it is personal to us."

Like the earlier two series, The Secret Life of the National Grid is chock full of tasty archive footage, including some of the construction of the first pylon, on 14 July 1928, at Bonnyfield near Edinburgh. Economics determined that the power lines be carried on pylons – overhead lines being 12 to 17 times cheaper than underground cables, and easier to maintain. The distinctive triangular-hatted look of the British pylon was based on a design submitted by the American firm Milliken Brothers, under the guidance of the fiercely anti-modern architect Sir Reginald Blomfield.

The pylon designs of Russia, America, Sweden and other nations were considered too brutal for our gentle, sceptred isle. Indeed, looking at various foreign pylons you come to appreciate that the British electricity pylon is as much an indigenous design classic as the red telephone box or the London Underground map. For his inspiration, Blomfield had gone back to the Greek root of the word "pylon", meaning the gateway of an Egyptian temple, but for a lot of people in the lovelier corners of the British countryside there was nothing classical or beautiful about these enormous steel structures dwarfing and despoiling, as they saw it (and many still do see it), the landscape.

The anti-pylon campaign was fought largely in the letters pages of The Times – the Central Electricity Board feeling distinctly threatened by such eminent "impractical aesthetes" (as they dubbed them) as Rudyard Kipling, John Maynard Keynes, Hilaire Belloc and John Galsworthy. Stephen Spender even felt inspired to write a poem, "The Pylons", the first two verses of which said it all really:

The secret of these hills was stone,

and cottages

Of that stone made,

And crumbling roads

That turned on sudden hidden villages.

Now over these small hills they have built

the concrete

That trails black wire;

Pylons, those pillars

Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret.

Pylon protests, supported by literary folk or not, continue to this day. Bill Bryson, author and president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), last year dubbed as "crazy" plans to string up 170 miles of new high-voltage lines across Snowdonia National Park, and four Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Anglesey, Kent, Lincolnshire and Somerset. And just this year, the Scottish Parliament approved a 137-mile line of pylons stretching across the Cairngorms from Inverness, in the teeth of opposition to what was called "a scar on Scotland" during the country's longest and most expensive planning inquiry.

We have, however, had eight decades in which to get used to Spender's "giant girls that have no secret" – the shock of the new to the 22,000 owners whose private estates were traversed, or indeed to anyone used to the gentle folds and intimate scale of the British countryside, must have been earth-shattering. This was modernity marching straight across hills and vales that had remained pretty much constant for millennia, and it was in the beauty spots of the South Downs, the Lake District and the New Forest where opposition was most vociferous.

But then, as now, the pylon-builders won the day, especially after Labour won the 1929 general election, and the new housing minister, Herbert Morrison, pursued the construction with a ruthless zeal. In September 1933, the last of 26,000 pylons was erected in the New Forest, and the circuit was complete – ahead of schedule and on budget.

The National Grid was ready for Britain, but was Britain ready for the National Grid? Would this mammoth network of pylons, wire and sub-stations just be a white elephant if consumers couldn't be persuaded to leave what pro-electricity propagandists dubbed "the Smoke Age".

Despite some initial misgivings, such fears proved unfounded, and consumers of electricity rose from three-quarters of a million in 1920 to nine million in 1938, with annual growth of 700,000 to 800,000 a year – the fastest rate of growth in the world. Books and pamphlets were produced to instruct people on how to light their home, while labour-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners and automatic washing tubs seduced more and more housewives.

But it was during the Blitz that the National Grid really proved its worth, keeping the lights burning and the factories working despite the close attention of the Luftwaffe. For example, when Fulham Power Station was knocked out and Battersea Power Station – Gilbert Scott's great cathedral to the age of electricity – badly damaged in September 1940, power was brought into the capital from South Wales and Scotland. In fact even to this day there is a north-south flow of electricity, as the regions feed the Great Wen of London.

It is ironic that Stanley Baldwin, unfairly vilified during the Second World War for being an arch-appeaser and for failing to rearm Britain during the 1930s ("I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill," Churchill said when declining to send him 80th birthday greetings in 1947, "but it would have been much better had he never lived") should have been the architect of the network that kept Britain alight during its darkest hour.

Today the National Grid, its nerve centre in a secret location, is a well-oiled machine carefully predicting our consumption from one hour to the next, since electricity cannot effectively be stored, only generated when needed. It's quite extraordinary, for example, that the surge of kettle boiling that occurs at the end of a popular television soap opera should trigger the opening of a hydro-electric dam in Scotland.

I was brought up in the other end of the National Grid, not far from the Pilgrim's Way on the North Downs in Kent, chalky hills of beech woods and bluebells immortalised from Chaucer to Powell and Pressburger, trampled over by these sightless and single-minded giant foot-soldiers of the electricity age. I never found them beautiful, but as I grew up I think I no longer noticed the pylons. They became, as for so many of us, part of the landscape. This new series might just make you look at them afresh, and even, perhaps, to consider them as strangely intimate objects of beauty.

'The Secret History of the National Grid' starts on BBC4 on Tuesday 26 October

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