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The Tube: An Underground History

Thu May 16, 9-10pm, BBC2

Did you know that Farringdon was the first-ever underground station? That the sulphurous subterranean atmosphere led to the launching of a PR campaign praising ‘the health benefits of steam and smoke’? Or that the unique patterns on the walls of stations were originally conceived as an aide memoire for customers who couldn’t read?

This celebratory film – in honour of the tube’s 150th anniversary – is full of such diverting nuggets of information. But the trivia is also part of a thoroughly convincing whole. Eventually, this is no less than an alternative history of London, told via its train network. The tube grows. The tube begins to choke on its own success. The tube modernises, regulates, begins to change its face by recruiting from the former colonies. And despite its awkwardness, obduracy and frequent setbacks, the tube thrives.

Eventually, this is something of a love letter to the logistics, aesthetics, design and, yes, functionality of this pioneering and still remarkable network. And while the filmmakers have presumably chosen carefully, the pride taken in the underground by the selected participants tells its own story. Under our feet lies one of the true jewels in London’s crown.