The Secret History of Our Streets will do battle in the best documentary series category on March 14 at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards. The BBC2 show, which tells the story of six London streets from the time social researcher Charles Booth’s 19th-century maps were produced, is nominated alongside All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4) and Inside Claridge’s (BBC2). Tough competition — but it would be a worthy winner.
Also up for a Royal Television Society best history programme award on March 19, the six-part documentary received high praise from critics and proved compelling viewing when it first aired in June 2012 and is currently being repeated every Tuesday on the Yesterday channel.
“Each episode is about the particularities of a different street and the people who live there,” says executive producer Simon Ford when we meet in central London’s Market Place. “But the series is also about the universal issues they represent. Their stories reflect those of the nation.”
South London born and bred, Ford, who was a producer at the BBC for 20 years, has done a superb job of portraying social change through touching tales that illustrate the tragically insensitive political attempts by local councils to “clean up streets”, wreaking havoc on the precious relationship between a community and its environment.
The seed of the programme came from the groundwork of philanthropist Charles Booth, wealthy son of a manufacturer, who in 1886 embarked on an ambitious plan to visit every one of London’s streets to record the living conditions of residents. His project took him 17 years.
On finishing, he had constructed a groundbreaking series of maps which recorded the social class and standing of inhabitants. It transformed the way Victorians felt about their capital. The Secret History explores how events of the past 125 years continue to shape the lives of those who now live on Deptford High Street, Camberwell Grove, Caledonian Road in King’s Cross, Notting Hill’s Portland Road, Reverdy Road in Bermondsey and Arnold Circus, Shoreditch.
© Robert Wellbeloved
“Joe Bullman [a co-director and creator] has always been fascinated by the Booth maps,” says Ford. “Director Brian Hill and I knew his idea to make a programme about them was fantastic. But we realised Booth was just the starting point and we had to plug into people’s stories.”
Each episode intersperses conversations and interviews with historical context. “We wanted to stay away from just speaking to people on their sofas and bring streets to life. We were keen that viewers got a flavour of what the roads are like now, so we filmed events, such as Diamond Jubilee street parties, that bring the community together.”
Sense of community
Ford was powerfully struck by the sense of community that still exists in London. What would he say to those cynics who suggest we live in a lonely city? “In London you can choose to be anonymous in a way that is almost impossible in the countryside, where everyone knows your business. The glorious old days of the East End, when everyone knew their neighbour, may have passed but there is still a sense of place there. People develop a really strong connection to an area that they make home.”
He says communities come out fighting when they are under assault from councils or building schemes — you can join your neighbours in protest without having to know them intimately. “My biggest revelation was that although impersonal and arrogant authorities come close to breaking the spirit of so many places, beacons of community still survive. If we do another series I would like to explore that in more depth.”
Despite his frequent irritation with councils and the damage done by their “ill thought-out” decisions, Ford’s research reinforced how much their power has diminished. “There was a time in history when social housing was much bigger and councils controlled where we live. Not any more,” he says. According to Ford, the future of property is in the hands of bankers. “Their money will determine whether your children can afford to grow up in an area.” Just look at how much Portland Road has changed since Booth’s time, “from a slum to the ghetto of the banker”.
Although individual streets have travelled up and down the social scale since Booth’s survey was conducted, the wealth and poverty ratio will become more extreme if we don’t tackle the “crazy” rise in property prices.
London: the greatest city
Ford was one of those “really lucky” people who got on the housing ladder young enough to have the choice of trading down. He swapped his family home in Stockwell Road for a Dorset house overlooking green fields. But he hasn’t fallen out of love with London. “Despite the mess, the inequality and the pitiful public transport, it is still the greatest city in the world,” he insists.
Rather than painting a rosy picture of the capital, The Secret History offers a realistic view. “The balance in programme-making is that you have to tell it as it is. Sometimes people aren’t happy with it.” There were a few ructions in Caledonian Road after its episode first aired, including a minor local campaign against landlord Andrew Panayi, who is said to own more than 40 properties on the street. “Islington council didn’t particularly like being reminded of the fact that he had slightly tweaked their tail over the years.”
One of Mr Panayi’s tenants represented an issue Ford was determined to bring to the surface. “Do you remember the Australian boy living in a flat with no windows, who was convinced he didn’t need any light because he was doing shift work?” he asks. How could I forget. “More people are in private rented accommodation (as opposed to social housing) than ever and his story demonstrated the effect of this.” He points out that 20 years ago, said Australian might have been put on a council house waiting list, whereas now he is in the hands of a private landlord, as are so many people of his age because they can’t afford to buy.
In the two years it took to make the show, Ford stumbled across so many cases he wanted to flag up. But it wasn’t easy to convince people to share their tales. Residents (“especially posher ones”) felt exposed so there were endless weeks of door-knocking. Producers soon realised the key was to share the information they had. “If you approach someone and say, ‘Tell me about your genealogy’, they will probably say no. But if you say, “I have your genealogy here, I can tell you something about it”, then they will want to know more. ”
He hopes that when Londoners watch the show it will deepen their love for the city and remind them that behind every door there is a story waiting to be unlocked. And a lesson to be learnt.
Join our debate: The Future of London's Property Market
* March 20, 6.45pm until 8pm
Emmanuel Centre, Westminster
Free tickets available from: standardevents.co.uk/housing