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.