By Judy Cox
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The making of a capital

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Television: A new biography of London that goes beyond the usual history clichés
Issue 1900

FROM MEETING your ancestors to what made Hitler tick, history is never off our television screens. There are the serious programmes, where weighty professors like David Starkey talk straight to camera and pronounce their conventional view of great kings and queens.

Or there are programmes that look at how ordinary people lived, such as Terry Jones’s recent series on the Middle Ages. These tend to be filled with forced humour, as if only a barrage of jokes can keep us interested. Peter Ackroyd’s new series avoids both of these traps. Ackroyd has written acclaimed biographies of some of London’s best-loved writers and poets, such as Charles Dickens and William Blake.

He has written several award-winning historical novels based in London. This series is based on one of his most popular books, London: The Biography. In both the book and the programme, Ackroyd avoids trying to tell the chronological history of London from its Roman origins to today. Rather, he takes up themes and shows how the past and the present “are locked together in an embrace”.

He looks through the eyes of Roman historians, diarists like Samuel Pepys, and novelists like Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf. The programme uses old TV footage projected onto famous buildings and modern scenes to give a sense of the dynamism and energy of an ever-changing city.

In the first episode Ackroyd reveals how the pattern of Roman streets is still visible amid today’s office blocks. He shows how fires, from Boudicca’s torching of Roman London to the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940 have both destroyed and created the space for renewal.

Red, he says, is the colour of London-for flame, blood, and resistance. The red flag was first raised as a symbol of rebellion by river workers in 18th century London. In the second episode Ackroyd focuses on the London crowd, as unruly on a Saturday night in Soho today as it was in St Giles or Covent Garden in centuries past.

The very fabric of the city was shaped by the elite’s fear of the mob. London’s gracious West End squares were created so the rich could escape the poor. The Notting Hill Carnival is part of a great tradition of festivals which stretches back to the medieval Bartholomew Fair.

At Bartholomew Fair the puppet Punch emerged as a sexually rapacious trickster who beat authority to become the hero of the crowd. The political establishment made great efforts to control the crowd through a cruel penal system that included the horrors of Newgate jail and the hanging tree at Tyburn. The London crowd took revenge when they burnt down Newgate and freed the prisoners during the Gordon Riots of 1780.

The tale of these riots, in which the crowd nearly took over London, is well done. Ackroyd describes the upheavals against the backdrop of a recent May Day anti-capitalist protest as well as having actors in period costume.

Ackroyd is not a socialist historian. He does not show how class conflicts were fundamental to shaping the history of the city. He sees London as almost a being in its own right, one that “feeds off its people, devours them in a endless appetite for power and profit”.

But this is history with verve and imagination. There is no stately parade of great kings and queens, and no court jester playing for laughs. Ackroyd weaves fact, fiction and myth together in an exciting and accessible way. If you enjoy the series, buy the book. It makes every walk round London an exciting journey, echoing with lives of the men and women whose footsteps you are walking in.

  • London: Fire and Destiny, BBC2, Friday, 9-10pm.

    London: The Biography is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £12.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


    The British secret state laid bare

    THE BRITISH establishment’s quest for weapons of mass destruction is the subject of a new exhibition at the National Archive in Kew. The pictures, documents and film footage from the 1940s and 1950s demonstrate the destructive power of the nuclear bomb and the inadequacy of any protection. Especially interesting was the material revealing how the Labour government decided to build the first atomic bomb.

    The bomb took five years and £100 million to develop-at a time when Britons were still enduring post-war rationing. Spending on the bomb was, “concealed under other items”. Only a small cabal of cross-bench MPs made the decision. Foreign secretary Ernest Bevin summed up the government’s motivation: “We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”

    The Attlee government’s decision did not become public knowledge until Britain’s first nuclear test explosion in October 1952. By 1954 the British establishment was clear that “it needed an H-bomb to remain a world power”. The joint chiefs of staff sexed up the threat of an imminent Soviet nuclear attack to get the H-bomb approved.

    Another section of the exhibition deals with “defence of the realm”. The intelligence community was sensitive to domestic opposition to the bomb. It kept tabs on any organisations likely to voice such opposition. This exhibition of the past gives a window through which to look at today.

    Graham Hodgin

  • The Secret State is at the National Archives, Kew, until 31 October (nearest tube Kew Gardens).
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