Last Night's Viewing: The Secret History of Our Streets, BBC2
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Thursday 07 June 2012
Infographics have thrived in the age of the internet, but "information visualisation" existed long before the information superhighway. Try Googling Charles Minard's remarkable 1869 "Carte Figurative" illustration of Napoleon's advance on, and retreat from, Moscow – or just look at the London Tube map, designed by Harry Beck in 1931.
The primary source for BBC2's fascinating new documentary series, The Secret History of Our Streets, is also a series of infographic maps of London, produced in the late 19th century by Charles Booth, a "social explorer" who colour-coded each street and neighbourhood according to the class of its residents.
Booth recorded the city's demographic fluctuations, the shifting layers of London society: one neighbourhood becoming gentrified, just as another slumped into poverty and criminality. Taking his maps as a starting point, the programme-makers have charted the development and redevelopment of six different London streets over the past century and a bit, beginning last night with Deptford High Street, which, in 1899, when Booth first visited, was known as "the Oxford Street of south London". Thanks to its thriving parade of shops and market stalls, it was marked red by the cartographer, signifying "well-to-do", his map's second highest social rank.
Even after the Second World War, Deptford had a prosperous market, high employment, and rising levels of home ownership. But some of its side streets were less salubrious than others, and, in the 1960s, London's urban planners decided that the area's "ugly" housing ought to be pulled down and replaced with a futuristic, concrete metropolis. They too produced an infographic to illustrate their grand vision; while west and north London were left largely untouched, swathes of the east and south were sacrificed to modernity. The environmental health officers given the power to label streets as slums were social, not civil, engineers.
Voluble John Price is descended from generations of Deptford shopkeepers, and now has a discount store in the High Street. His family, he explained, resisted the council's compulsory purchase orders at first, but were eventually driven out in the diaspora to Charlton, Brockley and Woolwich, their homes demolished to make way for the GLC's new tower block estates. None of the local residents wanted to live in the blocks, which were instead filled by recent immigrants, altering the face of Deptford for good. Now the high street is marked blue for "poor" on Booth-like maps, and is one of the most deprived areas in London.
The tone of the programme was elegiac, and there's more than a hint of romanticism in its thesis: that the modernist social project of the 1960s was completely misconceived. But it's a compelling thought, nevertheless. Like Booth's maps, the series is focused on London, but it's a story that surely resonates way beyond the capital. Everyone in Britain is fascinated by house prices, after all, and the punchline to Deptford High Street's tragicomic tale is nearby Albury Street. Once solidly middle class, by 1960 Albury Street was a slum, scheduled for clearance. By some quirk of council planning, it escaped the bulldozer. Today, its rather lovely terraced houses are going for £750,000, or thereabouts.
There's something elegiac and pre-modern about Lewis, too, which still features that comforting mix of familiar TV faces paying the bills, and recent drama school graduates doing their first bit of screen work. Last night's old hands included David Soul, best known as Starsky or Hutch, playing an American professor who'd come to genteel Oxford to give a lecture on criminality. Before anyone could really appreciate the meta-televisual irony of his casting, however, he'd been bumped off in the politest way possible: strangled with his own tie, while gazing into the quadrangle.
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