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TV review: Before Grenfell — A hidden history

22 June 2018


The remains of Grenfell Tower, west London, the subject of Before Grenfell: A hidden history, on BBC2, Wednesday of last week

The remains of Grenfell Tower, west London, the subject of Before Grenfell: A hidden history, on BBC2, Wednesday of last week

“THE most unequal place in Britain.” Whatever the statistical accuracy of the statement, it absolutely reflects the lived experience of those who live in Notting Dale, a couple of miles north of the vicarage where I write this. Before Grenfell: A hidden history (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) portrayed the unique historical complexity of the community bordered by Notting Hill to the south and Westway to the north, now notorious as the location of Grenfell Tower.

The documentary was largely told in the words of the residents living on the “wrong” side of the wall — astonishingly, an actual Victorian wall, built to separate the grand villas of Holland Park from the worst slums in London: the Piggeries. It is an extreme microcosm of urban Britain in our own times, the narrative of once wealthy inner-city mansions turning, throughout the 20th century, into exploitative tenements for the poor, then reclaimed through gentrification by the affluent, forcing the poor back into a ghetto.

But, in this particular place, there are potencies unmatched elsewhere: the post-war Caribbean influx; the race riots; Rachman’s exploitation; the 1950s visionary LCC slum-clearance; the favour nowadays of the nation’s best-heeled intelligentsia. It presented a powerful mixture of archive film, reminiscence, and history.

It was good to be reminded that, when the first residents moved into Grenfell Tower and the surrounding estate, the flats were, in comparison with the appalling conditions that they had been used to, “out-of-this-world luxury”. Failure to maintain the buildings, and the divisions engendered by “right to buy” soon ended this dream, however, and the estate began to decay: the flats became personal commodities, let and sublet.

We kept being told that no one cared about the deepening gulf — well, the Church certainly did, and I delighted in seeing, in 1980s TV footage, the Bishop of Kensington, Mark Santer, expostulate against the inequalities.

The film overlooked the constant efforts, over the decades, of committed councillors and charities to do something about the situation, or the immediate response to the disaster of the wealthy neighbours, who worked tirelessly to help and support, offering immediately to take in families (but, for legal reasons, being forbidden to do so).

It is the subject of another film, perhaps: one that explores why all this well-meaning action seems to change almost nothing; and why macro-economic, social, and political pressures and decisions have the decisive power, and work to exacerbate the situation. Will the horror of Grenfell Tower finally change this? Will it create a newly united community, where all the neighbours realise how much they share, forging new processes where all voices will be heard?

Until we know, this programme offers a superb insight into the complexities and energies of the area’s people.

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