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The Secret History of Our Streets, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret History of Our Streets, BBC Two

The Secret History of Our Streets, BBC Two

Return of enthralling social history series

Some of the residents of Moray Place in Edinburgh, who have an association with the street going back several generationsPhoto: Alistair Devine

Joseph Bullman's first series – about six London streets – won several awards, and deservedly so. Now he has turned his attention to Scotland in a three-parter starting in Edinburgh's Moray Place, and last night's opener was another beautifully judged mix of architectural history and social comment.

Moray Place, Scotland's most expensive, and therefore poshest, street (and far removed from the area of Sunshine on Leith), is part of the Moray estate, designed by the 10th Earl of Moray. The Earl saw a chance to make a killing in early 19th-century Edinburgh, when the medieval Old Town – where rich and poor lived cheek-by-jowl in tenements – was full to bursting and the New Town was being laid out; it met a natural barrier when it reached his estate and he planned a development of grand houses in a sizeable chunk of it.

Because the development traced the irregular contours of his land, the Moray estate, with its crescents and ovals, doesn't keep to the grid system of the rest of the New Town. It's a reminder of the power of the laird; under ancient land rights the Earl could dictate every detail – from the size of windows and doorways and even which quarry the yellow stone would come from. And, of course, who should live in these huge homes, the grandest of which – with its six-column frontage – he kept for his town house in the Scottish capital. 

In essence he created a housing state for the monied who could afford a large retinue of servants (echoes of Downton Abbey here). But, history accounted for, Bullman was more interested in the present-day residents of Moray Place, including the 21st Earl, himself planning a major new development on a plot of his land in the Highlands. Incidentally, the present Earl of Moray (pronounced Murray) speaks with beautifully rounded vowels and the accents here told their own story; all of those proudly calling themselves born-and-bred Scots spoke with English accents that would make the younger members of the royal family sound like Eliza Doolittle.

Bullman told a story of vaulting architecture, grand families and an elitist conclave, where present-day residents (many of whose families have lived in the houses for generations) include old colonials, army toffs, a member of the Order of the Thistle, and one who told the story of a huntsman who used to take his horse on a train from Waverley Station to take part in the local hunt.

But times have changed. During the postwar years many dilapidated homes were sold for practically nothing and were chopped up into apartments, and businesses – once banned by the 10th Earl – have moved into the ground and basement floors. The area has its aristocratic remnants, now mostly ageing, but new money is moving in. The programme ended with Iain Gray, a local man who grew up in an Edinburgh tenement and made his money in Scotland's 1990s banking boom – "I was in the right place at the right time" – and who once dreamed of living here. He was planning all the bathrooms he was going to install in his newly purchased property, which he is converting back from flats and a business into the five-storey home it was built as.

I have the privilege of spending most of each August to cover the festivals in Edinburgh, surely the UK's finest city, and have had many a billet in one of the huge houses or apartments in the New Town (although never, sadly, on Moray Place), so watching Bullman's programme was a joy. It was obvious that making it was a labour of love for him, too – recording, yet again, a small corner of Britain's social history in enthralling style. The series continues with Glasgow (itself having undergone a major redevelopment to accommodate the Commonwealth Games) and Aberdeen. Don't miss them.

  • The Secret History of Our Streets continues next Friday on BBC Two
Bullman told a story of vaulting architecture, grand families and an elitist conclave

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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