The Smoke gets in your eyes

In a landmark series, the BBC is bringing to life Peter Ackroyd's towering vision of London. It will make capital viewing, says Sarah Shannon
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Watch BBC2 on Friday and you'll be guaranteed a glimpse of an intriguing new celebrity. On screen, you'll see the writer and presenter Peter Ackroyd. A slightly rotund, eccentric-looking figure, he is certainly a literary star, but not quite the glamorous luminary in question. To see the true superstar, you need to look behind Ackroyd - and all around him - at our capital city, London. The past five years have borne witness to an extraordinary explosion of interest in the capital and its history. The reading public doesn't just want to know the burial places of the city's kings or where its seats of power lie. Their appetite is for knowledge about hidden London, underground London, secret London, as if they are certain that the city, like the celebrities in our magazines, has scandals waiting to be unearthed.

Watch BBC2 on Friday and you'll be guaranteed a glimpse of an intriguing new celebrity. On screen, you'll see the writer and presenter Peter Ackroyd. A slightly rotund, eccentric-looking figure, he is certainly a literary star, but not quite the glamorous luminary in question. To see the true superstar, you need to look behind Ackroyd - and all around him - at our capital city, London. The past five years have borne witness to an extraordinary explosion of interest in the capital and its history. The reading public doesn't just want to know the burial places of the city's kings or where its seats of power lie. Their appetite is for knowledge about hidden London, underground London, secret London, as if they are certain that the city, like the celebrities in our magazines, has scandals waiting to be unearthed.

Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair have acted as front-runners for a new breed of writers tapping into this thirst for information about the capital. So successful were their books ( London: The Biography and London Orbital respectively) that other writers - AN Wilson, Stephen Smith and Ed Glinert, to name but a few - have followed suit. Today the shelves of bookshops positively heave with tomes devoted entirely to the city.

Hardly surprising, then, that television should wish to tap into this phenomenon. London, BBC2's new series based on Ackroyd's biography, divides the city's history under sub-headings, much as the author did in his best-selling book. By taking general topics such as fire, destiny and the crowd, the programmes can dissect London across the ages.

"I'm interested in the way the past and present coincide," says Ackroyd. "If you took someone today and placed them in medieval London they'd quickly know their way around. The geography, the behaviour, the attitudes would all be familiar." The documentaries, like his book, travel along these historical fault-lines, telling us nuggets of information along the way. The Blitz, for example, may have razed swathes of London, but it also allowed a concealed London to emerge by uncovering an unknown section of Roman wall in Cripplegate. Or what about Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies? A sort of Time Out guide for the sexual tourist in Georgian London, complete with descriptions of the women available, it had 8,000 annual subscribers in its heyday.

To accompany the programmes, the BBC plans to try out a new service that will allow walkers to listen to Ackroyd's commentary on their mobile phones when they visit certain parts of the city. Those interested will be able to call a number relevant to their position and receive an historical lecture straight down their phone line. Earlier this week Channel 4 had its own take on this new celebrity subject. London: The Greatest City squeezed the capital's past into a two-hour documentary, from its discovery by the Romans to the present day. It used state-of-the-art computer images to depict London's transformation, including Boudicca's destruction of the capital, the Great Fire of London and Sir Christopher Wren's rebuilding programme, which gave us a skyline still familiar today.

This grand swell of publishing and media interest in London can be attributed to a number of different ingredients. Ed Glinert, author of The London Compendium, thinks that new methods of accessing information such as the internet have allowed writers to delve deeper into the city's past than ever before. "It's literally at your fingertips. In the past I'd have had to spend years in the library to find out the same levels of information. Now, on the internet, I can look at everything from pamphlets to personal histories in a fraction of the time." He believes that the books being written today are tapping into a desire for a new type of knowledge. "Books about London used to concentrate on pageantry, or the Blitz or Winston Churchill. Now people want to know about jazz and West Indian immigration and the Notting Hill race riots. Tastes have changed drastically in the past few decades and the publishing world is starting to reflect that."

Ackroyd believes the fascination with London's past has always existed - it's only now that writers are fully exploiting it. He admits that his and Iain Sinclair's descriptions of London as a dark, organic place have contributed to the new trend. "There's a periodic revival of interest, which is part of the revival of London itself. It's going through a rejuvenation at present. "Every other novel at the moment seems to have a London setting. Every new writer wants to tackle it. It's part of the zeitgeist."

Mary Tucker is the owner of The Original London Walks, a company which guides locals and tourists alike on specialised tours of the city streets. "Peter Ackroyd's book is mentioned quite often by people on our walks, so he definitely sparked an interest," she says. "Now publishers feel more confident to back other writers and everyone's leaping on the bandwagon."

Penelope Hoare, the deputy publishing director of Chatto & Windus, would not disagree. Her publishing house looks after a number of London authors, including Peter Ackroyd. "The great thing about London is that there are so many ways of looking at it, there's the topographical stuff, the different characters and the different periods in its history.

"Peter is fascinated by the continuities in the city. The South Bank has always been a place for leisure and entertainment. Once it had the Globe Theatre and bear baiting, and now it has the National Theatre and the Tate Modern. The City of London has always been a place of commerce."

Peter Ackroyd developed his fascination for our seething metropolis when he wandered the streets as a boy. "I was born here and have always lived in London. I can't imagine living anywhere else. I remember walking the remaining narrow streets in the City of London as a child. These places always affected me." Ackroyd's life seems destined to be entwined with that of his home city. In 1999, a day after he delivered the final manuscript for his "biography", he suffered a massive heart attack that nearly killed him. "The two things did follow on from each other. I suppose it was a natural fallback, having completed a large task."

Ed Glinert adores the city's ability to swallow up waves of immigrants, adapting to their home countries' traditions in the process. "It means you get this amazing wealth of cultures. There is initial opposition to new immigrants, and then assimilation. This isn't just about the past few decades, it's been happening in London for the past 2,000 years. Places like Manchester have lots of history, but they're relatively new and don't have centuries of immigrants enriching their cultures."

Readers, too, have turned into London-philes. Penelope Hoare notes that Ackroyd's book is selling as far afield as Australia, and long ago outdid her publisher's expectations. Ackroyd himself thinks many living in the capital feel as strongly drawn to its roots as he does himself. "Large numbers of Londoners are preoccupied with London's past, they really feel it in their bones. Others, of course, aren't remotely interested. But by accident or instinct I tapped into a vast amount of interest."

Will this new-found passion for the capital fizzle out once publishers and television companies have sated the initial interest? "I think London's a bottomless resource," says Hoare. "Publishers are always asking themselves if it's better to do a biography of someone quite unknown or to do another one about Napoleon. The answer is there's always mileage in the old subjects, simply because they are super subjects. London is one of those great topics, and people will always find new material or new approaches to what we already know." Ed Glinert agrees. "It's a trend that's only just starting to be exploited. We've barely scratched the surface."

Mary Tucker's perspective of the tourist trade has taught her not to get carried away with new trends. "I think the public appetite has always been there. We do many different walks each week, but the biggest without question has always been the Jack the Ripper walk. It's the only one we do every day. It's not the best walk we do, but people are infinitely fascinated in an unsolved mystery. I don't think that will ever change."

Is Peter Ackroyd seizing on this fashion for all things London to launch a TV career? Despite a previous series on Charles Dickens and a forthcomng programme on Handel's Water Music, he has no plans in this direction. "I've enjoyed doing these programmes because I'm interested by the subject matter, but I don't think I could become a professional presenter."

William Shakespeare will be the topic of his next biography, but he is never far away from the subject dearest to his heart. His next novel, The Lambs of London, is set in the 18th-century capital. London, the glamorous celebrity, seems destined to flourish.

'London' starts Friday at 9pm on BBC2

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