REVIEW / Pain and pleasure behind the privet hedge

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HEAVEN, Hell and Suburbia (C 4) opened with its presenter, Jonathan Glancey, fleeing a peculiarly lurid representation of city horrors through a magical door in the middle of an urban wasteland. He emerges, safe from inner-city crime and pollution, on a suburban doorstep, complete with cheerful milkman. I can't be alone in wanting to know exactly where this portal is and whether he might lend me the key, but for Glancey this is nightmare not dream. The suburbs, he said later, are 'wasteful and selfish creations' that 'sap the vitality and culture of a whole nation'.

He has another two programmes to explain fully his theory of half-timbered vampirism, but his opener looked like a backlash to a backlash. After decades in which it was perfectly proper to sneer at the lives of suburbanites - to see them as semi-detached in all respects - a few brave souls began to stick their heads above the privet hedges and argue that suburbs might not be all bad, that they might be models of human community rather than immaculate dystopias. Glancey would like to nip this in the bud, arguing with some passion for the messy virtues of the city.

Of course, if you had missed the first backlash (which would include Michael Frayn's affectionate film about suburbia and Jonathan Meades' discerning appreciation of its architectural pleasures) then elements of this one might have appeared a little mystifying. ('Here, Reg, there's another man on the telly banging on about how awful our house is' - 'Must be a repeat, love.') Other elements had suffered between recording and transmission; 'The pea-soupers have cleared,' Glancey said, arguing that the flight from the pollution of the city was slightly hysterical these days. It was a point that would have gone down better in a week when record increases in asthma hadn't been announced.

He is good, though, on the aesthetics of suburbia - the way that practical details (like tall chimneys designed to protect thatch against sparks) survive as emblems of warmth and security. Elizabethan timber construction, he pointed out, was dumped by the Elizabethans as soon as a better construction method came along - now half-timbering is cut from the roll and pasted on to Lego houses, an applique history for something that wasn't there six months ago.

He is also right to argue with such passion about the consequences of city-phobia - the flight from the centre in America has created doughnuts of leafy prosperity round depopulated streets which are part high-rise business park, part Beirut.

But perhaps the problem isn't what's wrong with suburbs. I have a feeling the people who live in them would be just as conventional if they lived in Soho and, in any case, the miniaturised ideal of husbandry - the tending of lawns, the doing of it yourself - is humanly attractive. It's what's wrong with cities that creates the countryside-munching drive outward. If you actually found urbanity in urban centres, rather than defensive aggression and unmuzzled Rottweilers, then there would be no shortage of people willing to move back in. It's true that symptoms can be unpleasant but I hope Glancey will look at some underlying causes in the coming weeks, as well as scratching at the rash.

The Late Show (BBC 2) has been in India for a week, an engaging excursion which included intriguing reports on the Indian architect Charles Correa and our man on the subcontinent, Mark Tully. They have been lucky in their timing - Wednesday night's account of the growing violence in locally made movies coincided with the fuss here over video nasties. The Indian debate - earnest discussion of catharsis and imitation, expressions of unease about the effect on children - showed how little we have travelled in 20 years. It also provided a nice test case for those with liberal anxieties about how we govern what we see on screen. 'I have no social, moral or ethical responsibilities for how I act,' said a cheerful young movie star who has made his career by playing psychopaths. Discuss.

Comments