The central argument of The Secret History of Our Streets is not a new one – the history of London is the history of class – but it is given fascinating new insight by so closely layering those social units onto the urban geography of the city itself. Writers from Charles Dickens to Chine Mieville have written of London as being a many-layered gestalt, but never has that idea been quite so closely tied to each corner, each market stall.
In this first episode, Victorian charts marking out the social classes of London street by street, surveys of the bomb damage inflicted on the east end by the Blitz, and post-war plans for a new, more efficient London are used to illustrate the changing face of Deptford High Street. The onscreen map work is some of the best this side of 1990s era Newsround and lends a surprising visual flare to the story of a single street.
Given Deptford has been a historically deprived area of London, archive footage is rare, but the few home movies and government briefing films available are well used. Abercrombie and Foreshaw’s vision of London as an economic machine in particular offers a fascinating view of a post-war, socialist utopia that never quite was. That this film is interspersed with illustrative clips from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis shows how close this was to the fascist ideal Britain had so recently devastated itself fighting. Both viewed society as a machine, engineered by those who will require the least reshaping to make it work. With stories in the news today of whole council blocks being shipped off to Warsaw, it makes for uncomfortably prescient viewing.
The episode never quite tips over into polemic – even if you want it to. There’s some wavering, but – perhaps wary that this is only the first episode of six – it sticks to attacking on a local front (why was Reginald Row demolished?), rather than asking questions about the larger economic and social shifts which have led to such drastic changes in the societal map of London.
There’s a great and angry story to be told of how economic factors are changing London and what effect that is having on the city’s poorer inhabitants, but The Secret History of Our Streets is not it. On a personal and visual level it is fascinating, but it remains to be seen if, in the coming weeks, it will find the balls to tackle the issues it’s really addressing.