Byline: Amira Hashish
THE Secret History of Our Streets will do battle in the best documentary series category tomorrow 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 to the present day, 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 Tuesday, the six-part documentary received high praise from critics and proved compelling viewing when it first aired last June and is now being repeated every Tuesday on Yesterday.
"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 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.
"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. …