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TV review: The-Five-Billion-Pound Super Sewer, Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, and Hidden

27 July 2018


A section of sewer underneath the Thames

A section of sewer underneath the Thames

ARE you looking for a handy metaphor for everything you think about life in Britain today, and all that is engendered by our capital city? Allow BBC2 to provide the perfect image for you, in its new documentary series The-Five-Billion-Pound Super Sewer (Tuesdays).

The necessity for this gargantuan enterprise was graphically illustrated by an interview with a courageous sculler paddling near the Twickenham overflow outlet. The present sewage system is essentially that constructed 150 years ago by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, to meet the needs of two million Londoners — but there are now nine million. In heavy rain, the drains more than fill the pipes, and the only way to avoid waste backing up into our homes is for it to discharge raw sewage directly into the Thames, via overflow outlets.

Bazalgette’s masterpiece was created in response to the 1858 Great Stink, where the river’s cholera-laden miasma was powerful enough to halt the work of Parlia­ment, his new embankments provid­ing not just enormous drains but also an underground railway line.

Today’s scheme is on an unimaginably vast scale, requiring ultra precise engineering and organisation. Yet, in a telling comparison, we are for the most part happy for the whole enterprise to go on out of sight and out of mind.

Perhaps this, and programmes like it, are properly raising the noble and essential profession of engineer back into public awareness, encouraging us to honour the work of those without whom our daily lives would very quickly become unendurable. The first episode ended with a climax to cherish: engineers watch anxiously as, after months of toil, the pumps at an enormous collection shaft were switched on for the first time. There was an endless pause while nothing happened, then it bubbled up: gallon upon gallon of sewage.

By contrast, the first episode of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema (BBC4, Tuesdays) celebrated a fragrance that has sweetened our lives for decades: the romantic comedy. He is analysing the process of the genre rather than the specifics of this or that film. The “secret” is that the effortless light pleasure of the great romcom is the result of careful calculation and highly professional expertise.

A dab of cologne wouldn’t come amiss for many of the protagonists of Hidden (BBC4 Saturday). A thriller, set in Wales and admirably breaking in its ancient language for key scenes, it is hardly, despite its glorious Snowdonia setting, produced by the Welsh Tourist Board. Here, you are likely to be abducted and held fast in a cellar, or stumble on a murderous feud spanning generations. This is the criminal shadow of the country’s beauty: poverty-stricken in every sense, soap and effective plumbing a distant fantasy. Methodism still has some work to do.

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