Whether it’s intentional or not, there’s a narrative thread running through the remarkable collection of archive documentaries about London the BBC has made available on its website. The theme could be loosely be described as ‘power to the people’, because what we see over the course of 30 films is nothing less than the shattering of Victorian society into 7.5million pieces – the number of people in the city today.
“Most of the stories are seen through the eyes of people who have a close link with London, which gives the collection an authenticity and strongly authored feel,” Marc Ramsay tells Scout. Ramsay is a BBC producer charged with making content available online – and he likens these films to high art. He’s right, they are gems. Ramsay helped put the other collections online too – Army, Talk, and America.
“I think of these collections as 21st century art galleries,” he says. “Each collection forms a new ‘wing’ and each film can be viewed in its own terms – as an audio-visual story – or be questioned in the hope that it might tell us more about the past.”
The London collection features films from 1946 onwards about our city’s markets (and stock market), its people, its buildings. Highlights include Scenes And Characters On London Bus Route and a Modern Times film about prospective cabbies learning the Knowledge. The collection is formed of a mixture of vintage and new documentaries.
“There is something special about vintage films, not least because they have stood the test of time by still providing a hugely rewarding viewing experience,” says Ramsay. That’s putting it mildly. These films are, in places, profoundly moving. For example, Margaret Drabble’s impassioned 1969 polemic I Love This Dirty Town, which shows London sliding off the edge of a socio-economic cliff but also presages the advent of community politics.
The outstanding The Secret History Of Our Streets is the greatest new series – though it features much archive material. It masterfully documents the huge shift from the power of the paternal state planners to the power of money, and the personal freedoms we enjoy today.
Our highly connected, fun-filled and free London of today looks like a paradise compared with some eras. To stand back and see the past displayed so vividly is a humbling yet satisfying experience. Ramsay sums it up neatly: “As the decades pass and memories fade, these collections give us a chance to revisit the past.”