Friday 8 June 2012

BBC2's Secret History of Our Streets

I was a day behind everyone else on this, having other commitments the day that the programme aired. But I tuned in to a lot of the discussion on Twitter and the comments on various blogs - both local and national - and finally got chance to watch the first programme in the series, which focused on Deptford High Street, last night.

The programme prompted more questions in me than it answered; it's very difficult to be dispassionate when the place that you live, and love, is under such intense scrutiny. Even my mum, who lives a long way from London, sent me a text to ask if I was watching it. It felt a bit like having your scruffiest smalls hanging on a washing line for all to see.

To try and review Secret History of Our Streets as objectively as possible, I felt it necessary to establish what the programme makers were hoping to achieve, and then assess how close they had got to doing so.

In an interview with Broadcast magazine, director Joseph Bullman explains:
"We wanted these films to be a Who Do You Think You Are? for a street – but without the celebrities. We were determined that the people of each street would tell their own story, collectively, for themselves. A people’s history of a single street, which – we hoped – would tap into the great social forces that had shaped a nation."

On the evidence of the first programme, Bullman seems to have failed spectacularly. This was not the history of Deptford High Street, it was the history of Reginald Road. It was not told by the people of the street, it was told by several members of one family and a couple of others, along with an unfortunate ex-councillor who ended up being heaped with blame for the decisions of his predecessors. And it does not 'tap into the great social forces that shaped a nation', it highlights the effect of slum clearance and the construction of housing estates. While it's possible the remaining programmes in the series may offer something more enlightening,  the strongest programme in a series is usually chosen as the first, so don't hold your breath.

The idea was to start with Charles Booth's poverty maps from the 1890s, which classified London's streets by their inhabitants, and assess how these streets had changed since then. Deptford High Street was regarded as extremely prosperous at the time, 'the Oxford Street of South London' and every single property was classified in the second highest bracket by Booth. His criteria for this rating was "Lower middle class. Shopkeepers and small employers, clerks and subordinate professional men. A hardworking sober, energetic class." Adjoining streets were given a range of classifications, from respectable to criminal.

Today, says Bullman, Deptford High Street is "one of the poorest shopping streets in the country; a rough-and-ready collection of Georgian and Victorian buildings marooned amid a sea of 1970s blocks". There's no indication of how the high street's rating has been calculated, which does rather undermine the argument from the start.

Indeed it has a lot of pound shops and businesses selling cheap food - the 'Bent can shop' whose proprietor John Price featured large in the programme being one of them - and an unhealthy number of bookies, but it is still a thriving high street and market. Many families are making a living from their businesses - whether they be the 'traditional' white working classes, or the Asian, Afro-Caribbean and Vietnamese families who now form a significant part of Deptford's population.

Few retail units are empty - usually those undergoing change or reconstruction. Even John Price seems to have gone up in the world - he may be running a small scale version of Lidl, selling bent cans out of boxes, but from what I understood of the programme, his family previously traded from a market stall. We weren't told whether he owned the building or not. The fortunes of other local businesses - rag trader Chris Carey for example - have improved immensely, whether by luck or judgement we don't know. She may still trade on the market but she drives a sports car and lives in a mansion in Essex so things can't be that bad. Even the signs of the early stages of gentrification (gentrification being the main indicator that the media uses to measure the status of an area, it seems) - coffee shops, cafes, delicatessens - are here.  
I have visited whole towns which I would consider 'poorer' than Deptford, many having lost their shopping streets due to a combination of out of town developments and recession. 

I'm not denying that Deptford does not suffer immense deprivation; it is visible daily and borne out consistently by statistics. The circumstances which created this situation are complex; they would be difficult to convey in a series of programmes, let alone just one.

I believe the programme makers set themselves far too wide a brief, too immense a task, and a year into the research process, were unwilling to reconsider the scope of the series. Linking the programme to the Booth maps was a mistake; to do the job properly would have involved covering 120 years of history, over a period involving huge social and economic upheaval and spanning two world wars and their consequences. All in 60 minutes.

'Letting people tell their story' is all very well but ultimately the director chooses what will be used and how it will be put together. He chooses who to interview, which footage to use and how to cut it, the archive material, the narrative, the sound track and so on. According to Bullman, Price didn't want to tell his story in the first place and had to be persuaded, so from the very beginning the programme makers are very clearly in command of 'the people's story'.

Many other things irked me about the programme. Although I enjoyed seeing the Price family cine-camera footage and following this very personal story to its sad conclusion, I was disappointed that much of the general archive footage - of living conditions, demolition and reconstruction etc - was uncaptioned. I would have been particularly interested to know how much of this was actually in Deptford or nearby, or whether it was stock footage. On a couple of occasions the voice-over hinted that we were looking at a particular street, but I was sceptical as to how true this actually was, except where I could recognise the streets. At least twice they used contemporary footage which had been edited into a sepia, shaky-camera style, to make it look like archive film.

I was also unhappy about the treatment of Nicholas Taylor, the ex-councillor who ended up being hung out to dry for decisions in which he played very little part. His willingness to participate in the programme - and his attempts to explain what was going on at the time, often expressing the opinions others held that he clearly did not share - seems to have been cynically exploited by the director who set him up as the fall guy for the whole slum clearance programme.   

The lesson is, if you really want to learn about the history of Deptford, at least up to the early nineties, don't rely on a 60 minute TV programme. I recommend an excellent book by Jess Steele called 'Turning the Tide: the history of everyday Deptford' which can be bought on Amazon very cheaply. Extensively and thoroughly researched - and as the recent post on Crosswhatfields points out, also including the 'revelation' that was at the heart of the secret streets programme - not only is it a highly-regarded piece of work, it is also eminently readable.

As for finding out the secrets of the high street, why not get out there and talk to people? You'd be surprised at what's going on among the bent tins and fish heads - Deptford High Street is far richer than you could ever imagine.


BrockleyKate said...

Good post, very interesting. The Jess Steele book has sadly soared in price since you and Crosswhatfields mentioned it - now going for £15-30 on Amazon!

Sue said...

Ooops! Took the price from the back of the book!

Anonymous said...

Yes, Nick Taylor was badly done by on the programme. I knew he and his wife personally some years ago and they couldn't be nicer, more socially connected people.

Sarah McLean said...

Great post! I found the programme very moving but felt it was far more successful as a character study and personal interest piece than any kind of investigation into history and social change.

The one thing I took from it was that I am so happy to live where I do, and I truly do love Deptford, however other people may choose to present it to the wider world!

Deptford Dame said...

Recall I paid about £12 for my copy last year, so I' m not sure we are entirely responsible for the inflation!

Anonymous said...

Well said! I thought it was a total misrepresentation of Deptford as it is now and as a documentary it didn't really seem to know what it was about.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a brilliant programme. It took a large sociologocal subject and explored it at a micro level through personal histories. I think you failed to see that the programme was about class, power and inequality.

Anonymous said...

I thought the film was highly manipulative and unlikely to be at all accurate

Anonymous said...

My family came from Deptford and I remember the vibrant shopping streets and the clearance of the houses.I think the treatment of the Councillor who clearly made himself available and did not necessarily share some of the issues was poor and unprofessional. This story of the amazing changes to the urban landscape with local people providing first hand evidence and background was enough in itself and we did not need to manufacture a fall guy.

Deptford Pudding said...

I expect the entire series is based on the Booth maps so Deptford couldn't really be any different. Its always difficult watching or reading about an area that means a lot to me, inevitably there's a lot left out or misrepresented.
I thought the programme did a reasonable job telling the story of a community torn apart by a council in thrall to the theories of the 'city as a machine', and Corbusiers 'cities in the sky'.

When the Boundary Estate was built (c1900) in Bethnal Green to replace the extreme slum that was the Old Nicholl, the new residents of the estate weren't the people that had been cleared from the slums, but people from outside the area. The original residents were scattered further east. The same seems to have happened in Deptford 60 years later.
Overall the programme left me feeling sad, probably because the personal stories were so moving.

Brenda Burrell said...

Where were the women? Deptford market bristles with women traders, the new businesses, those nail bars, hair stylists are run by women. It's the enterprising women, many newcomer African & Vietnamese women who make the life in Deptford so rich & interesting.

I love the place, and it was hard to recognise in this documentary. Thanks for helping set the record straight.

sascha.humphrey said...

Just seen a copy of "Turning the Tide: History of Everyday Deptford" from southend-books-and-dvds, on Amazon, for £89.18 +£2.80 delivery

Unknown said...

Although I thought the programme was enlightening in some respects, I come from and know a large group of Deptford people and it hase been pointed out to me that some of the very early footage of deptford high street was actually lewisham high streeet. However most of research done by the programme about the 'slum clearances' is correct.

Ken Brown said...

Brenda, yes. The treatment of women on the programme was one of the things that worried me most about it (as I ranted on a bit about on my own blog)

WereBo said...

What happened to the high-street north of Giffin Street/Douglas Way, or the railway-station and its history?

The only bit of the rest of the high-street I saw, was a quick shot of the renovated houses along Albury Street.

After the first few minutes, I found the program to be very sadly lacking, they could have used so much more in the 60 minutes.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the high-street north of Giffin Street/Douglas Way, or the railway-station and its history?

The only bit of the rest of the high-street I saw, was a quick shot of the renovated houses along Albury Street.

After the first few minutes, I found the program to be very sadly lacking, they could have used so much more in the 60 minutes.

Rachel Jenkins said...

I watched the program yesterday on iplayer and I can't stop thinking about it. It left me feeling so depressed and very angry! My mum's side of the family all came from Deptford and the stories of her close knit community and large family all living side by side was not an unusual one for that period I suppose but the secret being that government officials were allowed to tear apart these communities, with no thought and discussions with the local people. Beautiful buildings and a community were no doubt decimated. The fact is it's still going on today, beautiful old buildings are being left to rundown into a state of disrepair to make way for flats, lots of people are being crammed into new high rise developments with no gardens for their children to play in. Why are lessons not learnt, flats are put up and torn down in minutes and these beautiful buildings that stood for a hundred years or more, where people loved to live in them, are obliterated! My mum remembers the beautiful Empire and the Broadway, a theatre and picture house, these should have been listed buildings, also my mum talks about the beautiful and historic Windmill Lane. We have been trying to find a photo of it if anyone can help I'd be very grateful.

Why are lesson not learnt?

Anonymous said...

You are a marvel Deptford Dame. As High Street locals for nearly a decade, my wife and I were rather saddened by the documentary. It put together a very conventional, simplistic and polarised narrative of the past, implying that an indelible scar had been left, leaving the High St without a viable future - which we all know isn't the case, despite its very evident problems. I also felt the 'Cook Report' approach to Mr Taylor was extremely unpalatable. I really felt for guy. Apparently they considered going further in his vilification. I dread to think. Anyway - what a missed opportunity. Thanks for the commentary. Glad we weren't alone in disliking the show.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone see another Deptford shipbuilding story on the BBC last night? Celebrating once again the Master Shipwrights House and the East India Company in the story of the nation.
several sections refer to Deptford and some of it is filmed there too.

Anonymous said...

the program did not represent Deptford as it was, with the mods and rockers, the fashion, the winkle pickers and the lines waiting outside nolans for the mod suits. The wonderful people with their sample cookery offering everyone tasters,and Xmas. There has never been a better Xmas than in Deptford. Then Lewisham took over and despite them trying to destroy Deptford it is rising from the ashes.....

Brian said...

The programme made me angry and I'm glad to see I'm not alone. I used to know Nick Taylor from my work. Without liking him particularly, I did admire him, and thought the programme really stitched him up. They might as well have got him to grow a moustache that he could twirl in an evil victorian way. Also it was disturbing the way the programme seemed to see the numbers of immigrants in Deptford as a symptom of some kind of sickness, rather than a process of renewal.

Unknown said...

If anyone wants one Jess' dad Mike does the book from the seldom found;
He is a very nice man I'm sure he doesn't charge exorbitant prices. Bit of a plug. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

What a load of middle class tossers, bet you all love the edgy cultural vibrancy of Deptford rather than seeing it for the shithole it has become because of the disgusting social experiments of the 60s. An entire culture of white working class people wiped out but that's ok we have some nail bars and money transfer shops down the high street now!

Tintinhaddock said...

My view had always been that the post-war planners ruined Deptford with their over-zealous, misplaced Utopianism, but a trip to Deptford with my grandfather has since modified that view.

He was born in Evelyn Street in 1914 and moved away in the late 1930s. He'd never been back but as I live in Greenwich I took him on a tour of the place a few years ago just before he died. I was pretty gobsmacked when, after looking around a bit, he said 'it's a lot nicer now'.

Carol Jesson said...

I watched the programme, and it brought back memories for me. I spent my very early years in Deptford, living 13, Reginald Road and although we moved to Dartford in 1954, my Auntie Joan and her family continued to live there.
I can remember, Harriet's sweet shop, Dickie Wilkins rag and bone business and the hop pickers loading their stuff on to a plantecknican, before leaving for their annual trip.
Although times were hard, we were happy and those days us kids could play out on the buildings, quite safely.

ted said...

I lived in DEPTFORD from 1941 to1966,my parents house was pulled down in slum clearence and they were rehoused in a new block of flats Milton Court.This was like winning the pools for them hot and cold running water central heating.The old house was way past it, outside toilet no hot water 110 volt electricty downstairs only,gas lamp upstairs.My bedroom light was from the station platform
go to Deptford public baths for a wash (first class 6p 2nd 4p old money).In my time the market was on Douglas st not in the high st i worked with a watch repair man on his stall and used to warm my back against the bakers wall his ovens were on that side.Recently i went and had a look around very sad place too many cheap shops needs tyding up

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Clearly those who are up-set have emotional attachments. There is no denying that Deptford was once a community,was destroyed ostensibaly by well intended but misguided principles, with storage container housing for the disadvantaged and rootless rising in the ashes. And once an area has become a district dominated by 60s style council estates, it can never recover. It is condemned to forever be a refuge of the damned.

Anonymous said...

Clearly those who are up-set have emotional attachments. There is no denying that Deptford was once a community,was destroyed ostensibly by well intended but misguided principles, with storage container housing for the disadvantaged and rootless rising in the ashes. And once an area has become a district dominated by 60s style council estates, it can never recover. It is condemned to forever be a refuge of the damned.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments on here about my Deptford. I say my Deptford because all my family came from and grew up in this once safe place and real community.

A hard working class area with great shops all along the high street and surrounding area.

After visiting this once great area, its now over run with trendy middle class left wing goldsmiths artists, who now call themselves .."Locals"!. You must be joking!!!.

It also clear that Deptford is now a dumping ground for immigrants, who at least are getting all the new housing that us going up in the area.

The white local family's have largely moved on, so clearly do not what to live in a multiethnic community. Perhaps it's the reputation of now being a very high crime area and rundown market.

As for the BBC film, it's spot on and could have delved deeper on the high street. Compared to how it was, now it's a forth world slum market. Nothing in your wildest dreams of how it was. Deptford was once called the Oxford street of South London.
Now, nail bars and hairdressers and very low standard butchers and on the stalls, cheap tat and that's it.

Poor old Deptford but at least we had the glory days there and great place to bring up our family's.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous post...I think the film was spot on! Alot of the previous comments have completely missed the point. My family lived in the area and post-war were shafted by those wonderful councillors‘ social experiment which, in effect, ripped communities apart. It told the story of what happened through one family, which echoed the stories of my own family. I thought it was a well-researched film.
Watched it when it went out and again now...and had to respond to some of the remarks made, which are unjustified. I am pleased that someone wants to make a film about that generation who were seriously let down after the war and tell their story.

Eleanor Rigby said...

I thought the programme was interesting. It told the story of what happened to the social mapping of Deptford well. The architect was treated like the bad guy I must say. It's wrong to say Goldsmiths students are not locals. If you live somewhere that makes you a local.

Sass said...

Watched the re-run of this again recently. Thought people might be interested to know you can buy the book DD mentioned here:

Sirwalteraleigh said...

Settled was damned by the self-regarding, so-called 'professionals' with their utterly misguided moral views and appallingly destructive social 'visions' and this programme does an excellent job of exposing these dire social experiments which literally ruined an entire area.

I live in New Cross, itself a victim of the desperate need to fill those foul, soulless housing estates that still blight the area, so I know the area well and am all too familiar with its all too unfortunate past.

Social planners, modernisers and 'professionals'.....awful, the lot of them.

Deptford needs to be razed again (period buildings and former 'slums' excepted) for it to have any chance of enjoying the gentrification that is benefiting the surrounding areas.