On paper, a documentary about bridges over the Thames might sound, ironically enough, rather dry. But The Bridges That Built London, which went out last night on BBC4, was so fascinating it made the very rivets of Westminster Bridge seem positively, erm, riveting.
Presented by the loquacious Dan Cruickshank, and made by a producer who thankfully refrained from any attempt to link the programme with the recent Jubilee pageant on the Thames, this enthralling, ostensibly architectural documentary encompassed a veritable storehouse of fascinating facts about England’s capital.
Sensibly, the programme detailed the histories of the roadways which cross the London river in chronological order, telling the stories of bridges that no longer exist, before moving on to those we know and use today.
Along the way, Cruickshank introduced viewers to some surviving remains of London’s ancient bridges which are all but hidden from plain sight nowadays. For instance, did you know that parts of the wooden medieval London Bridge are still there after centuries of battering by the cold, cold Thames? I didn’t, and was swept up by Cruickshank’s donnish enthusiasm for these relics of the past.
I suppose the important thing to stress is that this was a documentary about much more than just architecture. Indeed, it also touched on the stories of everyday Londoners who worked on or around the bridges, exploring the social and economic factors that shaped the metropolis over hundreds of years, which are subtly recorded in the designs and appearances of the river‘s crossings.
In fact there was so much to soak up from this programme – everything from tales of boatmen opposing the construction of bridges to an exploration of the thinking behind Tower Bridge’s mock-classical façade – that I imagine history buffs will want to see The Bridges That Built London more than once to ensure that they’ve grasped it all.
It’s not often that a TV documentary inspires genuine awe in the viewer, but the combination of beautiful photography and Cruickshank’s passionate rhetoric left me with a real sense of wonder. At the programme’s conclusion, Cruickshank says wistfully: “There’ll be other bridges and other Londons in the future,” and I’d defy anyone who’d learnt anything from the programme not to marvel at that idea.
As ingeniously constructed as the Dartford Crossing, and as nice to look at as Millennium Bridge, this was BBC4 programming at its best. If you missed it, there are far worse ways to spend an hour than catching up with The Bridges That Built London on iPlayer…