Review: Arena – Underground

August 4, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

arena.jpgThe final part of Arena’s London Transport Trilogy doesn’t seem like an ordinary documentary. It occupies an interesting niche somewhere between historical re-enactment, fly-on-the-wall docu-drama and talking head show. Which is good, as a simple history of the London Underground could get slightly tedious.

Tedious is something that this one certainly isn’t. The program opens with a jerky modern view of a mother and her young son navigating the Tube system. A slightly menacing Cockney voice-over promises to tell the tale of the Underground from its origins back in the 1800s to the present day. The modern mother and son suddenly fly back in time, and we see them on board an early Tube train on their way to a public hanging in 1863.

The historical account of the Underground’s history is bejewelled with juicy archive footage and decorated with punchy war-time music. We’re taken back through the decades to the very earliest days of the Tube when trains ran just ten feet below street level.

In order to keep things spicy, the documentary makers have cleverly spliced historic detail with frequent shots of modern life – tube drivers giving their accounts of what life is like in dingy subterranea, a psychologist analysing tube conduct and herd mentality, and a tube enthusiast advising the viewer on the finer points of Tube etiquette (most important, unsurprisingly, is ‘Do NOT look at anyone’).

One of the most interesting sections of the program features Ted, a staff member who mans the lost property office. He’s seen some pretty strange things over the years – most bizarrely a casket of ashes which he is still trying to reunite with the person who left it behind.

But it isn’t all cheerful. The London Underground network has had something of a tragic past, from the runaway train accident and IRA bombs of the mid-70s to the bombs of July 2005. But as the program illustrates, it has weathered a world war and several terrorist attacks, and is a big part of the London spirit that has allowed the city to bounce back after tragedy.

This program is a must for anyone with even a passing interest in the Tube. Entertaining, educational, and lots of fun.

Arena – Underground airs on BBC4 at 22:20 on 4th August. Alert me.

by Susie Gordon