Not so much Grub St as Grub City in all its splendour

Last updated 12:44 08/11/2012
Neil young
INTREPID NARRATOR: Dan Snow digs up the dirt on city living from times gone by

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REVIEW: Filthy Cities. Prime, Fridays 9.35pm

After watching Filthy Cities, you're left thinking that it's a miracle any of our ancestors survived to emigrate to other parts of the world, but you can understand why they craved a bit of sunshine and fresh air.

It's something worth bearing in mind whenever you watch a historical drama - pictures can't capture the smell.

Kings and queens might have enjoyed the good life in sumptuous palaces, but the plumbing left a lot to be desired. On the streets of London, it was worse, as Filthy Cities' intrepid presenter Dan Snow showed in the first episode.

Snow is a guy who is willing to get his hands dirty and risk serious damage to his sinuses in the name of bringing history to life, whether shovelling a huge pile of horse poo, letting leeches suck his blood, or making leather the old-fashioned, stomach-churning way.

He looks at three great cities - London, Paris and New York - in the days when rubbish disposal meant throwing everything out the window, and you had to somehow keep your feet out of the mixture of mud, rotting animal byproducts and human waste underfoot.

Anyone who has travelled a bit, seeing and smelling the less savoury parts of the world, will have some idea of what our forebears had to put up with, but Snow goes the whole hog with oodles of real muck, icky closeups and amusing anecdotes, such as the one about the man who died when his toilet seat collapsed and he fell into a cesspit.

The streets of 14th-century London were a morass of mud, rubbish, sewage and the waste products of butchers, tanners, brewers, fishmongers, etc.

The English, being practical folk, decided to do something about it, and London gave us the first street cleaners and sewage workers. Then, the Black Death came along, adding thousands of rotting corpses to the mix.

Snow's approach to the subject isn't purely gross out or vicarious. He digs into records to reveal that people were actually quite annoyed by all the muck then, and wrote angry letters after they caught the neighbours piping poo into their cellar and such like.

He explains how dealing with these problems helped the development of each great metropolis.

It's a rare example of a show that manages to be very informative and entertaining, in a cringe comedy sort of way.

The filth didn't end with the aftermath of the Black Death or the Great Fire of London. All those horses and coal fires made life noxious for a few more centuries.

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However, if London was bad, Paris was worse, and New York about 100 years ago wasn't much better.

COMING UP Arnold Schwarzenegger, Miranda Hart, Ronnie Corbett and Usher are on the couch when The Graham Norton Show returns tomorrow at 8.30pm on TV3.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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