BBC iPlayer Has A Treasure Trove Of London Documentaries

By M@ Last edited 51 months ago

Last Updated 07 April 2020

BBC iPlayer Has A Treasure Trove Of London Documentaries

In this series, we take a look at the London-related programmes to enjoy on various streaming platforms (click through to see our Netflix and Amazon Prime selections). Today, we continue with the BBC's iPlayer.  

Most shows on iPlayer don't stick around for long. It's primarily a catch-up service, after all. But dig a little deeper, and you can unearth a trove of vintage documentaries about London. Indeed, iPlayer has a whole section of archive devoted to the capital, chosen a few years back by Simon Jenkins. Below are some highlights, from 1950 all the way through to the 90s.

Watch The Debate Continues, a 1950 London documentary, on BBC iPlayer
The Debate Continues

The Debate Continues (1950)

It's often forgotten today, but the House of Commons was completely destroyed in the air raids of the second world war. This half-hour film looks at the rebuilding of the chamber, orchestrated by Giles Gilbert Scott. Find out how George VI managed to bag a tour of the building, even though the Monarch is not allowed into the Commons chamber. Watch on iPlayer.

We Live by the River (1955)

Two East End boys silently make their way around the landmarks of London. Smoke is seen coming from Bankside Power Station (Tate Modern), while free entry is gained into the Tower and Westminster Abbey. It was a very different city. Watch on iPlayer.

Compare 1950s London and New York, with this excellent BBC documentary on iPlayer
Eye to Eye: London-New York

Eye to Eye: London-New York (1957)

Comparison of the two cities with delightfully outmoded commentary by harmonica player and former Chalk Farm resident Larry Adler. Watch on iPlayer.

After the Battle (1959)

"You pass a car park and recall that there used to be a pub. Hit with a two-thousand-pounder one night. 30 people killed." Edward Murrow became a household name in the US for his live radio reports during the Blitz. Here he recalls those times and comments on the post-war city, still badly scarred almost two decades on. The documentary features some excellent interviews with dockers, economists and politicians, all with strong views delivered in strong accents. Watch on iPlayer.

A House in Bayswater, watchable now on BBC iPlayer
A House in Bayswater

A House in Bayswater (1960)

An early film by Ken Russell, featuring the tenants and housekeeper of a condemned multistorey house near Portobello Road market. It's a fascinating peep hole into domestic life 60 years ago, from a time when people still polished their doorknobs every day, and not by way of euphemism. Watch on iPlayer.

Contrasts: Marble Arch to Edgware (1968)

Before he became a gastropub in St Pancras station, John Betjeman was a living, breathing person, famed for his verses about London. Here, the poet laureate travels along the old Roman road to Edgware. Highlights include the (fake) police station in Marble Arch, the site of the old Metropolitan Theatre on Edgware Road, and Little Stanmore church, where Handel once played. If you only watch one of these documentaries, this is the one to go for. Watch on iPlayer.

Looking for the best London documentaries online? Watch How They Dug The Victoria Line on BBC iPlayer
How They Dug The Victoria Line

How They Dug The Victoria Line (1969)

A must-see for any transport geeks. The 40-minute programme looks at the digging of the first totally new tube line since the start of the 20th century. Macdonald Hutchinson (father of Max) reveals how Oxford Circus was built beneath a giant road umbrella. Particularly striking is the lack of hard hats or other safety gear among the construction crews. Watch on iPlayer.

I Love This Dirty Town (1969)

If you think that London is going to the dogs today, have a listen to Margaret Drabble’s extended gripe about 1960's city planning. Watch on iPlayer.

Best London films on iPlayer: Going Places
Going Places

Going Places (1975)

The incomparable Kenneth Williams takes us on a tour of the northern end of Bloomsbury, where he grew up. The programme also features the Musical Museum in Brentford, in its original church setting. Watch on iPlayer.

Ours to Keep (1985)

Today, Spitalfields is one of the most treasured and characterful parts of town, but it was almost flattened by redevelopers. Campaigners such as Dan Cruickshank, Douglas Blain and Dennis Severs feature in this important documentary about the fight to preserve the old weavers' houses. We also hear views from the Bengali community, who aren't entirely comfortable with the conservationists taking over so much local housing stock. Watch on iPlayer

London buses, places, characters and community, all watchable with To The World's End on BBC iPlayer
To The World's End: Scenes and Characters on a London Bus Route

To The World's End: Scenes and Characters on a London Bus Route (1985)

That bus route is the number 31, which takes us from Camden Town to the World's End in Chelsea. Along the way, we meet a whole raft of characters, popping into traditional pubs, a car wash, a tiny mosque, a Kilburn bingo hall, a gay club and Kensington Roof Gardens. All London life is here. The chirpy northern bus conductor ties it all together with the occasional dodgy comment: "Approaching Earl's Court, alias Kangaroo Valley". Best bit: a middle-class community group have a heated debate about chickens. Watch on iPlayer.

Postcard From London (1991)

Clive James compares the city of his youth with the modern capital of 1991. He speaks to many London notables of the time, including Peter Cook, Michael Caine, Alan Coren, Stanley Green (the protein man), Terence Donovan and Victoria Wood. Trivia fans will delight at the domestic arrangement that connects Wood and James. He also visits Fleet Street just after the papers have left. Watch on iPlayer.

Best London documentaries available online: Modern Times on BBC iPlayer
Modern Times: Streetwise

Modern Times: Streetwise (1996)

Ever been tempted to learn 'The Knowledge'? The infamous cabbie qualification takes years of study and dedication. This thoroughly compelling documentary follows a group of wannabe black cab drivers as they prepare to be tested... and hopefully not by the dreaded Mr Ormes and his sinister inflatable parrot. Watch on iPlayer.

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