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A guest review by LH member Laurence Scales, of the new Channel 5 series. 

Feeling a bit lost at present on Saturday nights without a Swedish murder to mull over I turned to Channel 5 and its series, ‘How the Victorians Built Britain’, fronted by Michael Buerk The viewer is invited to bask in the glow of beautifully restored steam engines, magnificent dams and tiled Turkish baths. Land of Hope and Glory is playing in my head even if you cannot hear it. Yes, Victorians were wonderful in many ways. We should all know, of course, that they were frightful in many others. Victorian novelist Thomas Hughes invented ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and we are definitely wearing them here.

It may be that a few more things have been restored to their original glory today, but I doubt that otherwise this series would stand much comparison with a repeat of Adam Hart-Davis’s ‘What the Victorians Did for Us’ on the BBC in 2000. (His book is still obtainable.) This Channel 5 series is too sugary and ought to be paired with the health warning of another BBC series, from 2013, ‘Hidden Killers: The Victorian Home’, not just because it adds healthy roughage to the factual diet but because it gives perspective: mistakes were made in the process of building our world.

I knew that I would find myself shouting at the screen. But I did not shout myself hoarse. Michael Buerk is filmed interviewing bona fide experts but these wise heads are topped and tailed with some careless talk. It was said last week that Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers swept all that human ordure away to be treated in east London. Bazalgette did nothing of the sort. He just poured the noxious waste into the river there. He could do nothing else until treatment was invented. This week it was power stations. The first large scale power station was in Newcastle, apparently. (And they did not mean William Armstrong’s personal hydro electric generator at Cragside.) I wondered where they got that idea from. I checked. It turns out that Newcastle had the first power station with turbo alternators. You can easily change a fact into fallacy by losing a few words at the end of a sentence!

The production is easy on the eye and might serve to tempt people out to visit their local heritage and find out more. (As a part of that local heritage, I hope so!) Whatever the evils of the more sanctimonious or avaricious Victorians, the great thing is that their cavernous cisterns, mighty pistons and vaulting viaducts now belong to all of us, whether we were born in Somalia or Stevenage.

Laurence Scales

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