Blitz Street

(Cross posted to Britain at War)

I’m always wary of jumping on the bandwagon and criticizing TV shows based on the marketing – and if the number of newspapers who picked this up is anything to go by, it’s been a very successful press release… but it’s hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction to the news that Channel 4’s 2010 season of ‘factual’ programmes will include a ‘science-history’ programme, ‘Blitz Street’:

To mark the 70th anniversary of this pivotal event in British history, Tony Robinson presents a four-part science and history series which gives just a flavour of what it must have been like to live under such constant bombardment, and explores, crucially, why the Blitz failed.

The series – coming to Channel 4 in early 2010 – constructs a typical row of terraced houses on a military base. With the help of Ministry of Defence scientists, the street is subjected to a range of real large-scale high explosives and incendiaries, similar to those used by the Luftwaffe. Using a wide range of scientific sensors and gauges, there are precise measurements of the blast waves and dangerous after effects of flying shrapnel.

The series follows the nightly cat and mouse battles that took place between the Luftwaffe in the air and Britain’s ground defences, with barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns. Also tested are the internal Morrison and garden Anderson shelters.

Blitz Street explores the profound psychological phenomenon that was the ‘Blitz Spirit’. A large number of eye-witnesses, many of them speaking for the first time, recount their amazing stories of survival.

And that kneejerk reaction is of course that this is not just tasteless but poorly thought out (surely Tony Robinson hasn’t exhausted the national supply of buried ruins so completely that he has to create them as well as dig them up?) and not terribly informative (is the solution to the ‘Blitz Spirit’ really to be found in the blast effects of German bombs?)

But think further. I actually reckon this is a brilliant piece of experiential history – because, as I’ll suggest in next week’s lecture, the broadest ‘blitz experience’ wasn’t being directly under the bombs, but hearing and seeing them from a distance, perhaps with the aid of the radio, newsreels or newspapers. So  ‘Impossible Pictures’, the production company, have decided to allow us to share that experience of simultaneously spectating and incorporating resilience into the national mythology. How remarkably subtle.

Either that or it’s another celebrity-centred effort to emulate Top Gear, with a middle aged man blowing something up in an effort to make science and history ‘interesting’, which is how all TV now has to be.


7 Responses to Blitz Street

  1. Alice Austin says:

    The BBC had the Victorian Farm and Channel 4 had the Edwardian Country House. Therefore, the channel 4 execs sit there stroking their beards saying we can’t cross the Second World War with Skins, but we can use it as an excuse to allow Tony to play with bombs, and hence Blitz Street is born. I am afraid you may be giving Impossible Pictures more credit than they deserve.

    Am I a cynic? Well will this really work? Only if they can find a street of people who actually live together as a community, take away some of their menfolk, report other members of their family killed or maimed by war. Then submit them to nighly bombing, or the possibiliy of it. Surely this would be the only way they can fully explore the Blitz Spirit?

    • lucy bennet says:

      Surely Alice, it would only be wise to criticise the premise of Blitz Street once the show has been aired and there is some basis for your critique? After all, the exploration of Blitz spirit in this program is to be based not only on the recreation of the bombs, but through the oral histories of the survivors. If Impossible Pictures had neglected to incorporate eye witnesses, then only then could they be guilty of what you are insinuating. and to quote their press release “to give just a flavour…”

  2. Putting one toe on the bandwagon I would expect the exploration of ‘the profound psychological phenomenon’ not in fact to be very profound. The blurb sounds like it will be an ordinary series of first hand accounts (like in the series ‘Sex, Love and War’), interspersed with some pyrotechnics. Some of the ‘scientific’ experiments could be interesting- in terms of sound for example, though I doubt one street would be enough to get any real idea of impact. The other thing that interests me, though probably not possible to judge, is how first hand testimony recorded recently will have been affected by the subsequent national myth.

    It is important not to lump all these programmes together though. Victorian Farm was quite different in that the team that lived on the farm for a year were historians and archaelogists – the programme was centred around the processes on the farm- rather than the relationships between the people ‘experiencing’ it. Edwardian Country House was like Big Brother in period costume. Likewise The Victorian House and the 1940’s House were more enlightening about the families that were chosen to live there than anything else.

    In the meantime, until the show comes out, perhaps try the ‘Could you win WW2?'(alas a hypothetical question and not the chance to win your own Blitz experience kit) quiz

  3. Alan Allport says:

    Didn’t the Beeb do a ‘1940s House’ some time back? (I don’t live in Britain and so I pick these things up somewhat randomly).

  4. Alan- it was Channel 4 (I made a comment about it but it has to be moderated – either because I am suspect or because I put in a URL) Anyway another URL -everything you could want to know about the series (or not) is at

  5. john oconnor says:

    at the outbreak of war i was living in ashford (middlesex).the little cottage in which i lived with my parents, grandparents and sister was equipped with an anderson (tabletop) dad was in the afs and at the time of the firestorm raid, all, but all provincial fire brigades were rushed to the london areas. dad and his crew were assigned to clapham.on many occasions he was on duty for more than 24 hrs before being relieved, and then only for brief respite before going out again. on one occasion, he was blown off the fire engine by a landmine but after a couple of days respite,he was out on duty again.
    my mother was a voluntry firewatcher and one evening she had just gone on duty when our bungalow was one of several that received a direct hit with an incendiary bomb. it was extinguished by my grandad with buckets of sand.
    it was some months later, during the night/early morning that we had the first taste of “the doodle bug” (V1) it landed in the center of ashford and demolished a whole row of shops in the high street and a number of houses nearby.
    during the first few months of bombing, we were all quite scared, but after a while, we got rather blase about it because we seemed to gain some comfort,knowing that we “had the protection of the local ack-ack detachment”. in hindsight of course,jhis was quite foolhardy, but nonetheless, during the day, we used to stand outside and watch the bombardment of vickers and fairey aviation.

  6. Great site ! says:

    Great site !…

    […]Blitz Street « Trench Fever[…]…

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