London’s Hidden Histories

London

‘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.

2 comments on “London’s Hidden Histories”

  1. Gretta says:

    I saw this mentioned on the Radio Times Twitter feeed, and immediately moseyed over at the mention of Caledonian Road. This is just the sort of history I love, and I hope the BBC has the good sense to bring it out on dvd.

  2. Jez Winship says:

    It was an excellent programme, as have been the ones about streets in Camberwell and Deptford. There’s a real sense of commitment to these films, which aren’t afraid to make political points and give local people their voice. The local council architect and planner who appeared on the Deptford programme is almost certainly now ruing the day he agreed to be involved. There are some real surprises, too. When a well-spoken banker was interviewed about his feelings about the large Victorian council house next to his new place in Camberwell having been turned into an anarchist open-house, you expected foaming invective. But no, he got on well with its tennant and the diverse (and noisy) inhabitants who passed through. There are some really wonderful characters in these roads (I loved the Deptford newsagent), which goes to show that so-called ordinary people can be utterly extraordinary. The graphics changing the colouring of Charles Booth’s maps are excellent, there’s no overly intrusive music, and the narration is informed and makes many interesting points about the social history of local place. This is just really inspiring, intelligent documentary making. There was a glimpse of the Scala (cinema as was) in the Caledonian Road programme, which seems to have been within the boundaries of the proposed British Rail redevelopment (championed by Michael Heseltine as I recall). I might be wrong, but I always thought that it was the prospect of imminent destruction that made them decide to go out with a final fanfare by screening the then-banned Clockwork Orange.

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