TV review: The Tube: An Underground History

Following on from last year’s documentary series about the Tube, last night’s spotlight on the London Underground was surprising fare for a Thursday night. Surprisingly interesting, that is.

Farringdon Station was the first to be built for the London Underground
Farringdon Station was the first to be built for the London Underground

You’d be forgiven if at first glance the concept of a documentary about London’s underground system didn’t fill you with confidence about its entertainment value.

However, The Tube: An Underground History was an understated gem of a programme which stuck to a simple formula – a brief overview of the history, with some anecdotes from the workers.

Filmed around the 150th anniversary of the opening of the first line, the show went at breakneck speed through the history of the world’s oldest underground metro system, while shedding light on some of the day to day dealings for the staff.

Although, it does feel terribly ‘British’ to celebrate an arbitrary anniversary like it’s our duty to unfurl the bunting for anything that hits a round number – what next, a national day of celebration for 40 years of Chas ‘n’ Dave?

Along the way there were some interesting facts uncovered. For instance, the first line that ran from Paddington to Farringdon was created by slum clearances on an epic scale – something that was only mentioned in passing before we were brisked along into pretty footage of a steam train running through the stations while tourists looked on with jaws agape.

In a show that sets out to celebrate rather than analyse, it’s fairly expected, but you can’t help but feel like you had a glimpse of what could have been interesting in its own right.

The show also did an admirable job in proving that the trick to making an interesting documentary on a subject that isn’t in itself particularly fascinating, is to voice it through people with genuine passion for the subject.

Take for example one of the train drivers, Dylan. He’s fastidiously collected over 800 tiles from a number of stations.

Why? Besides retiling his bathroom on the cheap, it rather boggles the mind. Although it did cue in another interesting factoid that in the early days of the tube, illiterate passengers could know which station they were at from the distinctive patterns used.

Later on, meandering through one of the abandoned stations on the system, we have Dylan on hand again.

Elated at finding an old milk bottle, he fires into a piece of improvised storytelling about the piece of detritus.

Possible hoarding issues aside, his enthusiasm for all aspects of the history of the underground was truly infectious.

And then the show moved on to discussing the iconic designs of the system.

Amongst a number of stories and pictures, we were treated to a rare look at the early versions of Beck’s famous diagram for the transit map, as well as discovering about his split with the company.

By the end of the show it was hard not to want more. From eccentric Dylan, to the impossibly cheery Iain, their passion was a joy to watch. Heck, if easyjet can warrant over a hundred episodes of Airline, then the Underground surely merits at least another full series.

With the past and present fully wrapped-up, it was left to the inimitable Dylan to give us his idea for the future of the tube: “Maybe we just take away the trains and just have a conveyor belt and you just step on it… or an even better idea is we just take all the tracks up and have laminated floor and instead of buying a ticket, you just pay a pound and get some roller skates.”

I think he may be onto something there.

Robert James Taylor

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Comments for: "TV review: The Tube: An Underground History"

eva land

Strange that you didn't think this documentary would be interesting Robert, when you consider the engineering feat and mammoth task of building underground and the continuing to the present day, essential service provided.

There are many videos and articles to be found on the internet regarding the underground which are interesting to browse particularly if you used the tube in your youth.

Yet so unbelievably apparently fascinating (but in reality just so so) is the story of one of numerous train companies that sprung up and lasted very little time (20 years) and went bust.Yet we tax payers in Shrewsbury have now funded the rebuilding of a partial replicate station when only one wall remained of the original at a cost in excess of £75.000 on valuable, sustainable building land to, as we are told, commemorate it's previous existence.

Will we really get that money back in terms of tourism?

Being as every part of the country has railway history, I sincerely doubt it and as the present railway museums of which there are many, are adjoined to an actual steam train experience but still struggle to break even it is nigh impossible.

When you consider the continuing cost of the valuable site, how little it now offers but how much better this money could have been spent on the many hugely deserving charities who are given meagre grants by this council it is a disgraceful example of cronyism by the original SABC and now Shropshire Council which retains much the same Councillors and Officers.