Secret History of our Streets tackles the Scottish question

Jul 25, 2014
Holden Frith

BBC2's unexpected hit series reveals just how much Edinburgh and London have in common

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Secret History of Our Streets was an unexpected hit when it slipped onto BBC2 in 2012. Unexpected because an Open University-assisted social history project hardly seemed like box office gold, but a hit because it landed in the peculiarly British sweet spot where house price fetishism meets an obsession with social class.

The original series, which told the stories of six London streets through the personal histories of their residents, was inspired by Charles Booth's colour-coded poverty maps.

Mayfair, for example, is a yellow swathe of "servant-keeping classes", while the East End is flecked with the dark cross-hatching that signified the presence of the "vicious and semi-criminal".

The second series of Secret History, which begins this evening, strays off these maps to survey Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Nevertheless, it soon finds itself in familiar social territory.

The elegant Georgian terrace at Moray Place, one of Edinburgh’s grandest addresses, was shaped by class-consciousness. The plots were laid out to fit around the Earl of Moray's estate, and each buyer signed up to strict conditions designed to ensure that this pleasant corner of the New Town remained the preserve of the elite.

It was an attractive proposition for well-to-do families fleeing the old city centre, where they lived in amongst the poor and disreputable and alongside grubby commerce.

By contrast with many London streets, where wave after wave of domestic or international migration has brought with it a sense of variety and transience, Moray Place remains remarkably unchanged from its original design.

These are houses that have descended through the generations. One belongs to the current Earl of Moray, who guides us through his home, and the ancestral portraits that line its walls. "We've still got that kilt," he says, pointing to a distant relative, depicted in full Highland dress. "It's somewhere in the attic."

As in the first series, director and writer Joseph Bullman collects such telling details and spins them into a narrative that transcends personal recollection.

And, sensibly, he stretches his terms of reference in the interests of telling a good story. So when it turns out that the architect Basil Spence once had an office in Moray Place, he takes an instructive detour to the Gorbals tower blocks Spence built – and unearths some revealing archive footage in which an unfortunate resident asks the architect why his buildings look so awful.

"Well that’s very subjective," he says, with a patrician smile. "I gave each of you a balcony, a piece of garden, and I thought you might grow peaches."

Politics seep from every word of this documentary, and while there is barely a mention of the decision Scotland will make in less than two months, both sides of the referendum debate will find arguments to support their positions.

The pro-independence camp will note that Britain's national broadcaster devoted six episodes to London and found time for just three to cover the whole of Scotland – but in its substance this series offers more comfort to the unionists.

It paints a picture of two nations whose fortunes have been deeply intertwined for generations. Individual details stand out – a third of Britain's colonial governors were Scots, for example – but together they convey a deeper sense of togetherness. On either site of the border, the same tide of history has ebbed and flowed.

From the emancipation of women after the First World War and the subsequent shortage of servants to the rise of new money in the 1980s, the streets of Edinburgh and London have been shaped by their shared past.

And what of the future? As with Scotland as a whole, some residents of Moray Place are weighing up whether to stay or go – and a few seem rather resentful towards the grand old structures in which they live.

"I don't belong in this room," says one, whose husband died and left her alone in a five-storey house. Another's husband is still alive, but already she is planning her escape. I won't stay here forever, she says. "It’s not economical for one person."

But others are queuing to move in, attracted by the grandeur of tradition. Some are turning offices into residences, others knocking flats back into vast family homes – taking something old and venerable and reshaping it for the modern world.

Soon Scotland will decide whether the union is to be demolished or rebuilt. However it casts its vote, Moray Place will endure.

The Secret History of Our Street starts on BBC2 tonight at 9pm

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