Streets in the Sky Reel History of Britain


Streets in the Sky

Archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. Melvyn Bragg looks back to the 1960s and a time when high-rise housing promised a better way of living.


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Transcript


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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented,

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and changed for ever the way we recall our history.

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For the first time, we could see life

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through the eyes of ordinary people.

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Across this series, we will bring these rare archive films

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back to life with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.

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We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step onboard

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and relive moments they thought were gone for ever.

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They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,

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come face-to-face with their younger selves,

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and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.

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This is the people's story, our story.

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Our vintage mobile cinema

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was originally commissioned in 1967 to show training films to workers.

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Today, it's been lovingly restored

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and loaded up with remarkable film footage, preserved for us

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by the British Film Institute

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and other national and regional film archives.

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In this series, we will be travelling to towns and cities

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across the country and showing films from the 20th century

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that give us the Reel History of Britain.

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Today we're pulling up in the 1960s...

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..when high-rise housing promised a better way of living.

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This is Park Hill in Sheffield.

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When it was built, it was considered

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the most radical and ambitious estate settlement of its kind.

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Coming up, a thumbs-up for the Park Hill Estate...

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This is one of the best examples

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of what modern council housing can be about.

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How one high-rise block turned bad...

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They did let it just slip away and I think that was sad.

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And a moving memory of a long-lost brother.

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Magical.

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Touching to see my brother again after so long.

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We've come to the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield,

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which in 1998 became the largest listed building in Europe.

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It's always divided opinion. Some call it the Utopian dream.

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Others see it as a blot on the landscape.

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But it's certainly a towering concrete monument

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to the '60s vision of modern social housing.

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The story of 20th century social housing in Britain

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starts at the end of the First World War,

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when Lloyd George promised homes fit for heroes.

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And the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919

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required local authorities to provide new homes

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for the working class.

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But World War II halted progress and bombing raids damaged or destroyed

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more than a quarter of all homes.

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Post-war baby boom and growing immigration

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all contributed to an acute housing shortage after the war.

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Then the '60s saw a breakthrough.

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Visionary architects had a bold idea - build up into the sky.

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Pioneering town planners embraced high-rise living

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in the belief it would deliver a whole new way for people to live.

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But history has a different story to tell.

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'My guests today have come from all over the country

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'to tell us about their 1960s council homes.

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'Some will be seeing the films we're about to screen

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'for the very first time, showing us photos of their younger selves

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'and revealing what it was really like to live through

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'this social experiment in modern communal living.'

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'My first guest is 65-year-old Sandra Sandlin, who experienced

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'at first hand the radical housing policies of post-war Britain.

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'She and her family were initially housed in one of the thousands

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'of prefabricated bungalows the Government built

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'to provide temporary housing for people after the war.

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'They adored it.'

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-You brought this photograph?

-This is the interior of our home.

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This is me, here.

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I should think that's probably 1960, I'm about 14 there.

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My mum, with the cat,

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my nan, my auntie and uncle, my brother and my cousin.

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And we lived on the Belle Vale prefab estate,

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which was the largest prefab estate in the country.

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We lived in bungalows with gardens all the way round.

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And it was really lovely.

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When I look at other places, I realise how fortunate I was.

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'Today in our mobile cinema, Sandra's going to see films

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'from the nation's archive that show prefabs just like her childhood home.

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'How will she feel as the memories come flooding back?'

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'It was really lovely, cos we were surrounded by countryside.

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'Gardens all the way round, growing 'your own veg, loads of flowers.'

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We had two bedrooms,

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great big bathroom, great big airing cupboard, lovely.

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'About 160,000 prefab houses were built around the country,

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'but they were only intended to last for 10 years.'

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-VOICEOVER:

-Licensed only for 10 years,

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these will be rented at low cost.

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They are prefabricated and build of fine steel

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with a lining of plywood, for keeping a good, constant heat.

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'But in 1970, after 23 years in the same prefab, their happiness was

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'shattered when they were forcibly rehoused into a modern maisonette.'

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We moved from a detached bungalow into a block of maisonettes.

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So it was smaller and it was upstairs and there was all that inconvenience

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to get to the garden to hang the washing up

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and it was a tiny little square patch of land for the garden.

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So, it was no improvement.

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It wasn't my ideal of heaven. It wasn't my idea of a home.

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'Sandra's prefab estate was demolished

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'but she's always wished the council had allowed them to stay there.'

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'People were devastated to leave the prefabs

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'because it was so lovely.'

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Why did they have to demolish them? They could have kept them.

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If they felt that they weren't suitable for permanent dwellings

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then upgrade them!

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'Sandra was typical of many British people

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'who wanted a traditional family home.

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'But building bungalows on precious green belt land proved to be impossible.

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'So, planners' thoughts turned to redeveloping inner-cities.'

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Without any question, some architects in the '60s thought

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that urban planning could solve social life.

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They could bring people out of the slums, put them

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into buildings like these and they would aspire to better things.

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'To find out how urban planners tackled the housing problem,

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'the architect and historian Charlie Luxton

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'is meeting me here at Park Hill.'

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How do they arrive at the high-rise solution as the main solution, really?

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Already, from the 1930s,

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they're starting to question the way cities are expanding.

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You're seeing the kind of towns taking over the countryside issue

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and so they needed to replace very dense housing

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in the same sort of footprint.

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So really, the solution seemed to be to go up.

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Park Hill was a classic of its kind.

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I think this is one of the best examples of what modern council housing can be about.

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It was about, you know, aspirant working-class people,

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giving them a chance.

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Do you think the high-rise notion

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has any possibility of forming what we used to call a community?

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The idea here was to recreate some sense of that community,

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with these streets in the sky, so that you could retain

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kind of a social dimension to the way that you live.

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And they invested in infrastructure, they invested in the shops, the schools, the playgrounds.

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Do you think the high-rise solution was a good solution, looking back on it?

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Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with high-rise living.

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It works in other countries.

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I think the real problem

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comes from the way they manage those high-rise buildings,

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and the kind of people they put in them.

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Today we have come to the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield,

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where the utopian dream of streets in the sky both lived and died.

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The flats are almost empty at the moment, but my next guest,

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53-year-old Bob King, remembers when every flat was full.

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He moved here as a baby in 1962, and Park Hill was his playground.

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To us it was home. We were free to go anywhere we wanted,

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but we felt comfortable in this section here, cos it's where we played football.

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Where we did our games, our courting, where we met friends.

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What we learnt here would take us into our future lives.

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And we learnt about friendship, and we learnt about other people.

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We learnt all the life skills we needed here, on Park Hill flats,

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which made us what we are.

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In our mobile cinema, Bob is about to see a film

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released by Sheffield City Council in 1962.

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It vividly captures everyday life on the estate.

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Will it remind him of the terrific community spirit he loved so much?

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It was fantastic, to be transported back in time

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and to see familiar faces that I knew from way back then,

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in proper film on the big screen. Such magical stuff.

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This was our life.

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This film showcased Sheffield's pioneering approach

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to modern communal living for the working class.

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The new architecture was known as brutalist.

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It was practical and cheap.

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If you can imagine 995 flats with all those people living so close to each other,

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not to be at each other's throats every day,

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they must have got something right.

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To maintain a sense of community,

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neighbours are rehoused next door to each other

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and old street names are reused. It was a northern socialist utopia.

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It was like a little mini-village.

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The person who did it all thought of everything.

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Newsagents, hairdressers, shoe shops, clothes shops, a cafe.

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Everything you ever wanted was there in one little area on the flats.

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There were two milk floats. They were brilliantly designed

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to fit exactly just below the ceiling point.

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There seemed to be a little competition about who could have the prettiest doorstep.

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If the latest vinyl colours came out for linoleum,

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they'd go and get an off-cut and fit a little piece to their doorstep.

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It symbolises my youth and my growing up, through childhood,

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adolescence, and shaped me into being what I am now.

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It's like saying goodbye to an old friend. It was my life, my history.

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It's quite emotional. I'm quite moved. It's lovely.

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57-year-old Sheffield resident Charlie Lindley grew up here also.

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And today he's come along to see a remarkable film

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that actually shows his family living on Park Hill back in 1966.

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-Did you go to the primary school here, then?

-Used to fall out of bed and you'd be straight in your class!

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-When you fall out of bed when you get older, you'd be straight in the pub!

-As you got older, yeah.

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Me first pint at 18, me dad took me down to Scottish Queen.

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It were like a passage of rites kind of thing, you know what I mean?

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I think most of us did, their dad took them out for the first pint.

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Put you on the housing list at 18, got you voting.

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That's how it were then.

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How will he feel watching the film today?

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Park Hill replaced an area of back-to-back houses

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and steep interconnected alleyways, houses with appalling sanitation

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that had been declared unfit for human habitation.

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We lived in a slum area with back-to-back houses.

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One room downstairs, one room upstairs, and an attic.

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We moved on to the Park Hill flats and we thought we'd got everything

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because we got hot water, central heating,

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indoor toilet, three bedrooms.

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It was just a brilliant feeling.

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It was like a palace compared to where we'd come from.

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It held our hopes for a better future.

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It were everything to us.

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We lived, slept, ate, laughed, cried, had our first girlfriends.

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Everything, it's meant everything to me

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and to other people who grew up in that generation.

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It's like being in heaven up here

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because we've always been poor people.

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We've had so many good friends up here and these places is just lovely for us.

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Either for old age or young age.

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Today, Charlie will see himself featured in a BBC documentary from 1966

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that asked the residents of the Park Hill Estate

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how they felt about where they lived.

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What will it be like to see on the big screen the 12-year-old boy he once was?

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I think it looks a lot better than estates.

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They're just houses, rows of houses.

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But here it's modern, compact.

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Not crushed together, just put together,

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and it looks better than anywhere else.

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It were a big thing.

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It's not every day you get a camera crew in your house.

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Seeing his family on screen is a big moment for Charlie.

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When we moved back here I felt settled, when we came here.

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And here, if you do feel a bit lonely, you just get your shopping bag and your purse,

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and toddle off down to the shops. There's always somebody there that you know.

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The film reveals that although his mother loved the flats,

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Charlie's dad wasn't actually happy living on Park Hill.

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We moved down to Park Hill and everything seemed good at the time

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but I could never really get settled.

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When I came home from work,

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I didn't feel as though I really belonged here at all.

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Watching the film back, I realise what my dad thought about t'flats.

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It wasn't a home to come to.

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It felt as though it were some kind of a prison.

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That hurts a little bit, knowing that he did live here for all that length of time, just for the family.

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A particularly emotional moment for Charlie

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is when the director interviews his brother, Geoff,

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who had learning difficulties.

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I think it's beautiful.

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I think it's, er, nice.

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Magical.

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Touching to see my brother again.

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He weren't the only one who had learning difficulties round here,

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but everybody looked out for them.

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No harm was going to come to them,

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and people were like that in them days.

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This film has a poignancy for Charlie because he lost his dad eight years ago to cancer,

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and then his brother died not long afterwards.

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Pottering about in the garden...

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'You don't usually get the opportunity to see your dad talking when he's dead, or your brother.

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It's emotional, I think.

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All right.

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What did you think watching those films?

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When we watched the second and Charlie's younger brother came on,

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I felt for him because his brother is no longer with us. I felt this is going to hurt Charlie.

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What they were saying was right at the time. But I felt for Charlie when Geoff was on there, lovely lad.

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It's a strange feeling to see you on the screen.

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Somebody's going to be watching us on a screen.

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-He was euphoric, wasn't he? He thought it was beautiful.

-Yeah. He meant it.

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With his learning difficulties, one of his problem were he couldn't lie.

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When he said it, he really meant it was beautiful.

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Here on Reel History, we're at Park Hill in Sheffield,

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joined by visitors with different memories of '60s high-rise living.

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50-year-old Anne Kimuyu has travelled today from Cardiff,

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but she spent most of her life in a tower block in Nottingham.

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She loved it.

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Her family were among thousands of immigrants who came to Britain in search of a new life in the '60s.

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All needing homes.

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Anne was born to mixed-race parents in Kenya.

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She and her two younger sisters arrived here in Britain with their mother,

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when discrimination forced her parents apart.

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How did you arrive in the estate from Kenya? What was the journey?

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In 1964, Kenya got its independence,

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and in 1965 we actually had to leave Kenya.

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My mother's life was under threat as a white woman.

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I remember it was a big plane, I was very cold.

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We came with the clothes on our back, a small little brown suitcase,

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cardboard type suitcase, and a kettle. That's all we had.

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Then, we were offered the flats and the flats were just amazing,

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-they were lovely.

-How did you find your experience in those flats with the people at the time?

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The flats became a place where we all felt a big community, but all from different backgrounds.

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We just all got on together.

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Today, Anne will see footage of the Hyson Green Estate in Nottingham where she lived.

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How would she feel being taken back to the place she once called home?

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My mum, I think, was one of the first tenants. We were right on the front.

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It was absolute luxury. We thoroughly enjoyed living there.

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It was... We couldn't believe it.

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There were built-in wardrobes and the floors were all tiled and black,

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and everything just felt warm. I remember feeling warm all the time and it was just lovely.

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They were just as I remembered them.

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The pictures I have are very few and it just brought a lot of memories back.

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There was something about the flats and the community and the friendships that were made.

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You know, we felt we had a place, and for years I actually felt very safe there.

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By the mid-'60s, Anne's experience of high-rise living was shared by millions of people.

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Over 55% of all plans approved were for new high-rise developments.

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But something terrible happened in May 1968.

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It would change everything.

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At Ronan Point in East London, a gas explosion destroyed 22 flats and killed four people...

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..dramatically exposing the vulnerability of high-rise housing.

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We heard a terrific explosion, we see a load of rubble coming past the window,

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the next thing we knew, half the building was falling down.

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A few years after that major explosion in those block of flats, they actually took us off gas

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and we weren't allowed to have a gas cooker, if we had one.

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For thousands of tenants like Anne all over the country, the disaster was an alarming reality check.

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In the rush to build skyward, corners had been cut.

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Prefabricated sections leaked where they joined,

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causing terrible damp, and residents were stranded when lifts broke down.

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The failings in the funding of the high-rise dream

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were now well and truly exposed, and Anne's once-beloved estate in Nottingham

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became known as one of the worst places in the country to live in.

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Over the years, things changed dramatically in Hyson Green flats.

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Different people came and went.

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I think they put us in there and left us to it.

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And I think that's quite typical of a lot of places.

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The Hyson Green estate in Nottingham was demolished in 1988.

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-VOICEOVER:

-No-one is mourning the passing of the Hyson Green flats,

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least of all the residents. These homes are, quite simply, a disgrace,

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a housing experiment where the tenants believe they were the guinea pigs.

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They didn't do anything to the flats to keep up the maintenance.

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They did let it just slip away, and I think that was sad.

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Across the country, tower blocks had been allowed to fail to fulfil their promise of a better way of living.

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Decked access routes became breeding grounds for crime and vandalism.

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Problems with anti-social behaviour saw many families move out

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and the estates became dumping grounds for problem tenants.

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They had been neglected, and become what they'd been designed to replace - failing slum estates.

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The story was echoed here at Park Hill in Sheffield.

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My next guest, Grenville Squires, became caretaker here in the mid-'80s

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and he witnessed the estate's demise.

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But today Park Hill is in private hands and there are ambitious plans to revitalise it.

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Grenville is hoping there's a bright future around the corner for his beloved Park Hill.

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Your experience here, for a long time, was a very happy one. You speak of it very fondly.

0:26:070:26:11

Oh, yeah. She's my mistress, isn't she?

0:26:110:26:14

She's the only lady that's called me out at 2 o'clock in the morning and made demands,

0:26:140:26:18

and she's the only lady whose demands I've reacted to.

0:26:180:26:22

I've got to say that cos the wife is watching this!

0:26:220:26:26

No, she were great.

0:26:270:26:30

Seeing our films charting the rise and fall of Park Hill

0:26:330:26:35

proves an emotional experience that moves Grenville to poetry.

0:26:350:26:40

Park Hill has not had its face washed for 50 years.

0:26:460:26:49

If you didn't wash your face for 50 years, you'd be mucky.

0:26:490:26:52

The old girl's got a mucky face.

0:26:520:26:54

This is a poem about Park Hill.

0:26:560:26:58

Park Hill is an eyesore so pull it down

0:26:580:27:02

It is a blight on Sheffield's town

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That's all you hear that's all they say

0:27:040:27:07

Just blow it up, take it away

0:27:070:27:09

We need someone with some foresight

0:27:090:27:11

Who does not see it as an ugly blight

0:27:110:27:13

To give our flats some TLC

0:27:130:27:16

Put back the spirit that used to be

0:27:160:27:19

Replace the concrete repair that crack

0:27:190:27:23

Then put the community spirit back

0:27:230:27:25

Make it a place we want to see

0:27:250:27:27

Please give Park Hill some TLC.

0:27:270:27:29

Everybody I've talked to about this Park Hill Estate sings from the same song sheet.

0:27:360:27:41

They loved it.

0:27:410:27:42

They talk about paradise, they talk about it being beautiful,

0:27:420:27:45

they talk about it as a place of a great community.

0:27:450:27:48

All here, brilliantly conceived.

0:27:480:27:51

And then neglect, lack of maintenance,

0:27:510:27:55

meant that it became called the ugliest place in Europe.

0:27:550:27:59

But that now is being changed too, as they begin to refurbish it.

0:27:590:28:04

The new Park Hill is due for completion in 2017.

0:28:050:28:09

A lot of my guests today will be hoping

0:28:090:28:12

it brings back the sense of community they once so much enjoyed here.

0:28:120:28:17

Next time on Reel History, we're in Norfolk,

0:28:260:28:30

remembering the time Mr Beeching axed the railways in the '60s.

0:28:300:28:34

All the proposals in it are directed towards stopping them

0:28:340:28:37

doing those things that they're no longer well suited to do.

0:28:370:28:40

I thought, "Wow," you know, "He's decimated the railways!"

0:28:400:28:44

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:29:020:29:05

E-mail [email protected]

0:29:050:29:08

Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.

Melvyn visits Park Hill in Sheffield to look back to the 1960s and a time when high-rise housing promised a better way of living.

Architect and historian Charlie Luxton explains how urban planners tackled the housing problem they faced after the Second World War. Anne Kimuyu shares her own experiences of high-rise living in Nottingham's Hyson Green estate, as the flats failed to fulfil their promise of a better way of living. And former Park Hill resident Charlie Lindley comes face to face with his family when they were filmed by the BBC in 1966 soon after moving into their new flat.


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