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TV: Mark Smith on the Secret History of our Streets

How wonderful it is, when so many television documentaries scream and shout, to watch one that whispers.

The Secret History Of Our Streets (BBC Two, Friday, 9pm) was the first of a series of programmes about Scottish streets and it was a gentle, subtle, delicate essay on the human relationship with the places we live in.

"Memories are rendered in bricks and mortar," it said. "The streets we live in reveal the secret past under the skin of the present."

Peeling the skin back wasn't easy though because the first programme was set on the east coast of Scotland where people don't readily talk about their emotions.

No one in Edinburgh is going to suddenly flood their hankies with tears and talk as if they are on Oprah, so the director Joe Bullman had to reveal the emotions through the unspoken moments.

One elderly resident, Dr Bill Ayles, briefly mentioned that his close friends had all died, and then quickly changed the subject.

"Would you like a drink?" he said "What would you like?" But the camera lingered on his face and you could see what he wasn't saying.

Of all the stories in the programme, Dr Ayles's was by far the most moving largely because the programme used his house in the New Town to talk about the realities of ageing.

The doctor took us into one room where he and his wife used to have parties (his wife now suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home).

He also showed us a picture of his four children (one of them died of a heart attack).

It was proof that buildings may stay solid and strong but the people who live in them fade and crumble.

As the programme progressed, the bigger story of the New Town emerged, specifically the streets known as the Moray Feu that were designed by the Earl of Moray in the 1800s.

Before the development, rich and poor lived together in the Old Town but the Moray Feu signalled the beginning of the end of mixed communities: the New Town was for the relatively well-off only and still is, the perimeter fence maintained by high house prices.

In the 20th century, this trend accelerated in Scotland with the poor sent to live in council estates or ushered into the lifts of the Glasgow high-rises (designed by Sir Basil Spence, who himself preferred to live in Edinburgh's New Town).

But housing policy changes with time because humans do, and the trend now is back towards mixed living, exemplified by new communities such as Knockroon in Ayrshire and Tornagrain in the Highlands (designed by yet another resident of the New Town and descendent of the Earl of Moray, John Stuart).

The Secret History Of Our Streets revealed all of this story without labouring it but what it perhaps didn't do enough was resist the cliches about Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The second episode is set in Glasgow and follows the lives of the residents of the East End and, to that extent, is typical of the way the city is represented on television.

Wouldn't it have been more interesting to turn it all upside down and speak to the middle class of Glasgow and the poor of Edinburgh?

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Arts and Entertainment

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