Mind the gap

Television - Andrew Billen rates Lucy Blakstad's poetic series on the meanings of bridges

Bridges, those varicose arteries that thread nature with stone and steel for man's convenience, are Lucy Blakstad's unpromising subject for three peak-time, Sunday-night documentaries. When she started making the trilogy, Blakstad could hardly have guessed that, by the end, her two other subjects would look as friable as Mostar Bridge, destroyed in the Bosnian civil war. No sooner was the Millennium Bridge over the Thames opened than it closed, and was rechristened the Wobbly Bridge; in her third film (to be shown on 9 December), Britain's millennial aspirations are mocked in the addendum of sarky commentary from a pleasure boat. The view from Brooklyn Bridge also looks different (in both senses) now, after 11 September, and Blakstad had to return a whole year after she had finished shooting to add a ten-minute postscript to the first film (25 November, BBC2, 8.05pm). The aspirational dream of the locals, to live across the East River in Manhattan, looked pretty redundant in this crise de nerfs. "That great Bridge, our Myth", as Hart Crane wrote in his famous, optimistic reply to T S Eliot's "Waste Land", looked a myth indeed in the re-edit.

Not that Blakstad, who has distinguished herself with documentaries about the human body and the Modern Times programme Lido, would necessarily care about Crane's poem "The Bridge". A designer and graphic artist by training, she comes to her subjects with neither an Eng Lit degree nor a back history in journalism.

Her way into her films is visual, and you sometimes fear she will prove too interested in how things look: the cross-hatch, for instance, of girders by which the Brooklyn hangs. Her interviewees at first provide a kind of mood music, and are not even granted the courtesy of name captions. Yet their stories emerge slowly but clearly out of their backgrounds. You end up knowing almost everything about them. Indeed, you remember the people, not the landscapes. Blakstad is either a cracking interviewer or a first-rate casting director.

Her take - her initial take, at least - on Brooklyn Bridge was that it was the stairway to the American dream. On the south side in Brooklyn, it was explained, life was not so much swank as Saturday Night Fever (and we visited the ballroom where it was filmed). "Here I'm rested; there I'm restless," said one of her young interviewees, chancing upon le mot juste, to his friend's applause. For her fur-hatted Russian immigrant interviewees, America was the promised land and Manhattan the promised land's promised land. It took a Chinese American woman to point out that the "golden mountains" of New York had kept her mother in penury, sewing collars on to shirts for three cents apiece.

But 11 September bleakened every aspect. One of Kid Creole's former Coconuts, driven from Manhattan by the decline of his career, had said the bridge, which he can see from his window, represented "getting back to the promised land", but in the postscript he said he no longer wished to make the journey. The rainbow, as one contributor put it, no longer inevitably led to "the pot of gold". A young man, who had owned up to panic attacks crossing the bridge, now called Manhattan a "war zone".

Set in a real and recent war zone, the second film in the series, on Mostar Bridge, argues that it represents a golden age that endured for four centuries until the bridge was blown up eight years ago. The town is now divided between east and west, with the Muslims expelled from their old flats on the West Bank occupying the east and the Croats on the west. The bridge symbolically linked two communities that, until the war, did not even know they were divided by religion. Even during the war, young fighters would not shoot a soldier on the other side if he happened to be their old diving instruc- tor. (Diving competitions seemed to be the main sport in Mostar.) "We all thought of the bridge as a human being, like an old man we really respected," said one of the impossibly virile yet soulful young men whom Blakstad interviewed, still in grief. This elegiac film, heavily reliant on old footage, is the masterpiece of the series.

Just to show she can vary her tone, however, in Millennium Bridge, Blakstad casts a cynical eye upon Norman Foster's questionable masterpiece. Whereas for New Yorkers, Brooklyn Bridge was a link to a better life, and for the Mostaris their bridge represented a meeting of cultures, London's newest bridge has proved yet another source of class anxiety. The southerners interviewed feared an invasion of pedestrians from the north, grumbled that they were not consulted about the design, and objected to not being able to hear what the Queen said when she opened it. On the north bank, a rough sleeper snobbishly said he did not like slumbering on the poor side. The wobbliness of the bridge is a manifestation of London's social queasiness.

But the meanings you can draw from these essays, which I urge you to catch, are less important than the pleasure you get from watching them. Were they making no arguments at all, you would still see obscure lives illuminated. These are much warmer films than Blakstad's slightly supercilious series on the human body. Their humanity is their strength. That they look beautiful, too, is a bonus.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?