Monday, 19 March 2012

The Tube

I don't know if anyone else has been watching this, it is fascinating, seeing behind the scenes. It also gives you an understanding of the pressures on the system (and makes you despair - by the time they've upgraded to accommodate more people, the number of users will have grown again. It will always be hopelessly overcrowded.)

But it is such a great subject that I think they could have made it much more varied. They've made it into a regular fly on the wall documentary; but I think they missed a trick. Other things I would have loved to have seen:

The history of the tube. Including the engineering. It's so old, why did they feel the need for it back in the nineteenth century? Its history tells us so much about the changing world. I'm thinking of the growing industrialisation which led to commuter culture. Or the way that people used it to shelter from bombing raids in the war.

Henry Moore's sketches of people sheltering during WWII.
"Moore never drew in the shelters. "It would have been like making sketches in the hold of a slave ship,"he said."

The design - Harry Beck! Graphic designer supreme! Think what an impact he had all over the world. And the beautiful, instantly recognisable typography. And the textile design of the seat covers. The changing design and materials of the carriages. The history of art and artists on the underground (at the moment, they are saving Paolozzi's mosaics at Tottenham Court Road, but they're looking pretty tatty and tiles keep dropping off.) The design of the stations themselves - Piccadilly Circus is my favourite, it's art deco & beautiful, Southgate tube (where I grew up) is pretty cool too. And the new ones on the Jubilee line are all space-age and impressive. It would have been good to interview architects and designers involved.

There is also the Art on the Underground initiative which is superb. It gives you non-advertising to look at, and I'm collecting the tube maps as each cover is designed by a different artist, using the tube lines colours. Something on them would have been good.

Also lots of unanswered little questions they could have asked people - I'm always curious how staff get home at the end of a shift. If you've just driven your train to Uxbridge at the end of a shift, how do get home if you live the other side of London?

And they mentioned in passing the recorded messages which announce each station - I wish they could have interviewed the people who recorded them. Listen out for the woman announcing Highgate and the weird way she pronounces it. And if you ever get off the Jubilee line at Stratford, listen out for the 1930s radio announcer who says "ALL CHANGE PLEASE". He sounds like Mr Chomondley Warner and instantly makes the whole carriage burst out laughing.


  1. Oh! Forgot one! Politics. The union vs the politicians, with the public caught in the middle.

  2. Yes, Piccadilly! I always worry that one day I'll go there and they will have done away with the world time map. And all that travertine! It is a treasure.

    Jubilee Line was Le Grand Projet. It's looking a bit tatty now but the architects had noble ideals. Each station had its own architect, its own character. Canary Wharf as a secular cathedral, Westminster as a triumph of engineering over geology, and so on. The idea of doing away with the disorientating 'tube' from ticket office to platform, instead giving the traveller a clear sight of where they were going and in as much natural light as possible was a radical change, intended to be democratic and liberating, if we are to believe their manifestos. Well, I was convinced when I went on the tour.

    And you're right. Real people have to operate the system and real people are customers, and there is a load of unsavoury politics in that transaction.

    Thanks for the tip. Looking forward to catching up with the programme.

  3. You're making me homesick. A few days ago, a security guard stopped at the turnstiles to the SkyTrain in Bangkok because he was carrying balloons. The man (who was accompanied by his wife and small daughter) pointed out that he'd been carrying the balloons on the train earlier that day, and nobody had stopped him.

    So the guard hit him with a truncheon.

  4. I caught two episodes and also love it. It makes me feel extra sorry for the bus drivers though. Those horrible, drunk, angry people who miss the last Tube? Straight onto the buses...

  5. I'd like to get a tour with the architects, Anne. The other day I passed a long queue of people waiting to see (closed) Aldwych tube on an Open House architecture day.

    Tim, wow. Why so cross in the land of smiles?

    B, yes. So glad I'm too old now for night buses.

  6. I love love love anything about the tube! When I was 12 I did a school project on it while everyone else was doing pop groups or animals. I think the reason that the idea for the tube came about was that the overground railways weren't allowed to go across London - if you look at where all the mainline stations are they are in a circle around the edge of central London - so the underground started filling in the gaps. Harry Beck was from Finchley and there is a fab programme I saw on Youtube about the tube being haunted which almost immediately explained the strange sensations drivers had at some points on the line with some science that was quickly brushed to one side lest it get in the way of a good yarn! But the tube background was fascinating, especially things like loops on the lines so that trains can turn round before the end of the line, I think there is one below the Thames between Embankment and Waterloo - I shall look it up for you. Would love to see this programme....

  7. You would love this Em, though it is more about what it is like to work on the tube, and they could have done more with it.