‘The Secret History of our Streets’ is the kind of old-school documentary series at which the BBC excels. If you live near any one of the six streets being featured over each hour-long episode, you’ll know how accurate the programme-making is proving to be. At the top of my street is the Caledonian Road, the subject of the latest episode. It’s an area that has fought a series of battles against rapacious property developers, do-gooders, bombs, idiot government planners, the IRA, drugs, gangs and scumbag landlords.
Because it’s a mile and a half long, one end of the Cally doesn’t conform to the other. So while the police move out crack whores and drug dealers in the Southern part, the opposite end is seized by sleazy opportunists happy to exploit the housing shortage. There’s the kind of footage you’d expect here; film of the old cattle market, monochrome images of kids playing in the street, an old geezer telling the camera you could leave your front door open in the old days.
But the series has found some genuine local heroes. When the government and the railways ruined the neighbourhood by destroying houses to build a prison and tracks respectively, they went to the law courts and fought for green spaces. They bought trees, planted gardens, saved whole terraces, halted unnecessary destruction of communities.
They’ve been repaid by having to watch the area fill with wealthy developers who aren’t interested in anything other than making money. The Star & Garter pub is now a mosque but the area is gentrifying, even though the curse of Starbucks has yet to be inflicted on it. Surprisingly, the programme makers name villains, filming interviews with one particularly repellent landlord, Andrew Panayi, a Greek Cypriot who lives in the gym when he’s not cramming broke students into slum flats without natural light.
He does it openly and regularly, without any planning permission, in defiance of a council that proves pathetically ineffectual against robber barons. The result is that one man has managed to ruin an entire road in central London by apparently being allowed to operate beyond the law.
This is a neighbourhood I know very well, and the reporting was exemplary, with two strong women – a pub landlady and a local campaigner, living to see the fruits of their labours. For anyone interested in London history it’s an unmissable series. Unfortunately it’s not available on iPlayer for overseas viewers.