BBC2's The Route Masters showed us the real London: not flat-out amazing, not all-the-way terrible

Who knows the city better than a night bus driver?

Growing up and watching telly, I wasn’t held in a kung-fu grip of fascination by the city I was born in. The London on television was not that far from the real thing back in the late 1980s and early 1990s and it was not pretty. Everything looked grey and manky to my child’s eyes. I grew up in deep, dark east London – a place as unlovely as anything a city planner has ever dreamed up. I could not understand what type of great art might be born of such an unrelentingly dour environment, when the colours in artists’ palettes are reduced to only slightly different shades of grey. For me, New York and all the other shiny cities in the US that were beamed to me via the bountiful four channels (!) at my disposal were it.

The US was the land of cheerleaders, of exciting politics and courtrooms, of crazy stunts and passionately raised voices. By contrast, the London on my screen was filled with gruff East End characters, men in heavy leather jackets, their faces like grim masks. All the cop shows were steeped in depressing “realism” and the car chases were small scale, the cars knocking over carefully dressed sets of fake, wooden boxes. Men were called Terry and Razor and Dave.

The US detective shows were a glimpse into another world, full of maverick cops with a sideline in quirky little “just one more thing” habits. The everyday world of London life on London telly was just not exciting. The main problem was that it was all I had access to. You never want what you consider to be workaday, do you?

Then something changed. By the mid-to-late 1990s, between plain, old teenagehood and the not-so-plain Cool Britannia, between Britpop and SMTV Live, the internet and yet another “British invasion” of Hollywood, London reopened itself to me. It became a place to see and explore, worthy of being the subject and location of every television programme on earth.

Money poured into what had seemed like the symbol of a broken city, the Docklands, and reupholstered away the rough edges until there were steel-and-glass towers and unaffordable homes.

The London on the screen made the Tube romantic, a magical portal to a city of endless possibility. Youth TV shows such as As If assured me that adventure was right around the corner because I was young and foolish and beautiful. Hollywood portrayed London as a sleek cosmopolis, where everyone spoke only one of three very different dialects: the plummy tones of the Home Counties, broad and common Cockney or cut-glass villain. This system lacked nuance, sure, but it did the job for a long time.

These days, the London on television has evolved again and is very different from the one of my childhood. Now, it’s a marvellous mix of grit and glamour, nowhere more beautifully portrayed than on BBC2’s The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads. This documentary covers all of London – from the wealthy neighbourhoods of west London to the commuter towns of Ilford and Croydon – and shows a normally quiet but all-seeing minority, transport workers, finally breaking their silence, telling Londoners who we really are.

One recent episode, about the night-bus network, was simply excellent. “You want the right one to come in and the wrong ones do,” said the flirty but also weary and wary bus driver Duane, who was driving a bus from Brixton to the West End, about his attractive passengers. “The ones that should come over don’t.”

We met Jeff, whose life was a reminder that the things we consider permanent have a nasty habit of turning out not to be: having lost his business, he was homeless, one of the many people who use London’s night buses as a moving shelter every night. “You’re one pay cheque away,” he said with a laugh. Another driver, Tommy, had his shift interrupted by some young men causing trouble and called it into the office; his description of “a group of black guys” over the radio rubbed some of the passengers up the wrong way. One woman rolled her eyes and asked how their race was relevant – a fare dodger is a fare dodger. Tommy looked a little hurt and told the camera he wasn’t racist –his wife is black. On top of that, he’s half-Asian.

This is London, I thought. Not flat-out amazing, not all-the-way terrible. Just another city of humans, trying to get home at the end of the day.

Westminster Bridge by night. Photograph: BBC.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

My Scientology Movie
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Is Louis Theroux’s new film, My Scientology Movie, “banned” in Ireland?

The film isn’t getting an Irish release – could the country's blasphemy and defamation laws be to blame?

The Church of Scientology is a touchy subject. So touchy, in fact, that the plot of Louis Theroux’s new documentary, My Scientology Movie, revolves around the controversial church’s refusal to appear in on camera. As the institution becomes more and more impenetrable, Theroux’s film uses dramatic readings and re-enactments (alongside more traditional methods like interviews with former Scientologists and scenes showing their attempts at access) to get to the heart of the subject.

Now, Theroux is discovering new complications as his film approaches release. As the buzz around the feature grew, Irish entertainment sites began to notice that although a UK distributor, Altitude, was attached to the project, there was no release date listed for Irish cinemas, nor an Irish distributor. This sparked concern among those familiar with Irish blasphemy and defamation laws – Alex Gibney’s 2015 Scientology documentary, Going Clear, did not secure an Irish theatrical release over libel claims.

The 2009 Defamation Act states that any “person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000”. Blasphemous matter is defined as anything that is “insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, and that intends to cause outrage.

There is a loophole in the law, if it can be proved that “a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value” in the work. The law also states that blaspemhy laws do not apply to an organisation or “cult” that prioritises making financial profit or manipulates followers and new recruits. Scientology isn’t officially recognised as a church in Ireland, but it’s unclear whether or not it counts as a religion under the acts definitions.

It’s important to note that the decision not to show the film in Ireland lies with the distributors – this is not a case of the Irish government banning the film from cinemas, as many have been keen to point out on Twitter. As this is at their discretion, it also means we might never know for sure why they decided not to go for an Irish release.

Altitude had this to say in a statement:

Altitude Film Distribution currently has no plans for a theatrical release of My Scientology Movie in Ireland, and has no further comment to make at this time.

Informative, GRMA guys!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.