Filthy Cities Review: Vivé La Sanitation

FILTHY CITIES: Tuesday 12th April, BBC2, 9pm

It’s little wonder that Louis XVI and his cake-scoffing bird ended up being guillotined. If you lived next door to a tannery which used dog crap, human urine and quick lime to create leather, paid a level of tax that would given David Cameron cardiac arrest and couldn’t even afford bread to feed your family, then you’d probably have a few bones to pick with the person in charge as well. Last week’s Filthy Cities was a marvellous trip into the plague-ridden alleys of Medieval London, but this week Dan Snow has revolution on his mind.

As you’d expect, our enthusiastic presenter doesn’t pull any punches as he describes the fetid details of life in 18th century Paris and some of the set-pieces here are best viewed after dinner. We’d expected the commoners from this age to live in filth (Snow explains that they were well aware of the health implications of their conditions, but were unable to do much about them), yet we thought those toffs over at Versailles might have been more hygienic. Not so. They may have lived in luxury, but Louis and his mates didn’t think twice about throwing poo at each other and urinating in the corridors of the great palace. It almost sounds like something out of Blackadder..

Unsurprisingly, the fact that the nobility not only refused to do anything about the shocking sanitation, cholera epidemics and general hellishness (at one stage the life expectancy of a poor labourer was just 23..) but decided to move out of the city, leaving the proles in the proverbial, led to a violent uprising – and the rest is academic.

Almost like the adult version of those great little ‘Horrible Histories’ books, Filthy Cities gives us a decent introduction to an epic period, whilst peppering us with ‘vivid’ examples of just how rubbish life could be back in the day. One particularly horrendous anecdote comes from a restaurateur who found that a mass grave had burst through the wall of his basement. Apparently the health inspector wasn’t impressed..