Last night's TV - The Big Rotten Apple

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Posted on: 20 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

Some proper filth with Dan Snow

We're as clean as anything nowadays. Yes, our streets may have a lot of litter now and then, and rougher parts of town have turned 'dodge the dog faeces' into a national sport, but really, we've never been cleaner, healthier and - let's face it - less odorous.

That's the underlying message of Dan Snow's three-part BBC 2 series Filthy Cities, which concluded last night with a focus on New York. Thanks to a combination of corruption, greed, ignorance and out-and-out human exploitation, the 19th century 'Big Apple' oozed, stank and crawled with disease, parasites, rotten meat, frozen sewage and horse manure.

At one point, the yearly death rate due to disease was 1 in 35 (imagine over 230,000 modern New Yorkers dying of illness every 12 months!), and it took decades of political struggle to put right.

Of course, lots of free market advocates and tea-baggers would love to see New York wallowing in its own filth again, just as long as the hated Big Government was reined back in.

But as Filthy Cities demonstrates, whereas the free market is perfectly happy to let people get Typhus from lice and work themselves to death in sweatshops, it took social and political pressure, and indeed courage, to actually get anything done.

The real theme of the show is that humans can achieve great things if they really want to, through technology, reform or simple determination.

So it's a bit of a shame when the last section of the programme rather dims this with yet another screed on greenhouse gases and modern pollution, along with the warning that the 'war on filth' will never end. It's rather disingenuous to be pessimistic when, by definition, the history of cities proves that we can solve problems and achieve progress even under the worst conditions.

I'm rather reminded of the last episode of another BBC 2 series, The Lost World of Communism, which couldn't resist noting that some fools in eastern Europe continue to miss their workers' paradises, even after documenting so soberly the horrors of the Ceausescu regime and others, and what harm that their underlying ideology always ended up doing to those under its rule.

Still, the rest of the show is good fun, as Dan Snow gets fed on by a procession of hungry bedbugs and lice, makes sausages with meat in full putrefaction and a dash of borax, got to drive an electric car from 1916, reveals what an utter swine Thomas Edison was (for, amongst other things, zapping an elephant to death just to make Nikola Tesla's AC electric system look bad) and shows how good bacteria does a wonderful job of making sure our tap water doesn't taste of sewage.

It's pop history, that much is true, and yet is one of the best examples of its kind, entertaining and informing with equal flair, only occasionally dipping into the morose pessimism of our own spotlessly clean but cynical times.

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Alexander Hay

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