East end spice

Television - Tales of immigrant adversity prove a little too heart-warming, writes Andrew Billen

Unless it's Coronation Street, it is not often that the television juggernaut stops long on a single street, but BBC2 on 25 March persuaded me that Brick Lane in London's East End deserves the detour. Punctuated with short films - advertisements really - celebrating some of its more colourful residents, this very short night (1 hour 50 minutes) comprised a documentary and a drama. Although neither was exactly touched by genius, they left you knowing the road a bit better, wanting to know it better still and considering the possibility of emigrating there.

Brick Lane, Minoo Bhatia's documentary, worked its way back and forth in time through three groups of immigrants. First to pitch up, turning country lanes into city streets, were 15,000 Hugu enots, Protestants who fled Catholic France in the 16th and 17th centuries to settle in Spitalfields. They brought with them not only their skill as weavers - which they could practise in the East End out-side the fortress of closed shops run by City of London guilds - but a new word: "refugee". Next up were the Jewish settlers who came from eastern Europe in the last decades of the 19th century and settled into less elevated pockets of the rag trade. In the 1950s came the Bangladeshis, astonishingly almost all of them from the poor farming region of Sylhet. The whole story could have been told from the point of view of a Huguenot church that turned first into a Methodist chapel, then into a synagogue, and in 1976 became the Great London Mosque.

For the Huguenots' story, we had to settle for engravings and modest re- enactments by actors, but the Jewish and Bangladeshi experiences were brought alive by some stunning interviews. The playwright Bernard Kops (although his profession was suppressed by this programme) did much of the work for the Jews. His late parents, Joel and Jenny, came to Brick Lane at the turn of the 20th century from Amsterdam, his mother mistaking the open wings of Tower Bridge for the welcoming arms of a mother. Soon the flat she lived in at the top of a large block came to represent for her an economic Everest she would have to climb daily. Bernard remembered her at its foot, sighing - the immigrants' Esperanto, as he put it. Yet financial survival was a Hima-layan peak that tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants did climb. Kops stood outside the premises of the area's last Jewish shop owner: Mr Katz, the string-maker (talk about making ends meet).

As touching was the tale of Shafiq, who arrived from Bangladesh in 1958. By the mid-1960s he was the first Asian manager of the then fashionable Wimpy Bar chain. The local girls could not get over the superabundance of his thick dark hair, and he was quickly snapped up by white-as-Persil Pamela. Even his contemporary Abdul, whose contributions needed to be dubbed into English, eventually felt secure enough to bring over his Bangla-deshi wife. Judging by the Asian faces on The Apprentice, I can't imagine the next generation of Bangladeshis staying around Brick Lane for long. Next up, who knows: the Chechens?

Naturally, not all was sweetness, charity and economic progress. The Huguenots faced riots from jealous native textile workers. Kops witnessed the Battle of Cable Street, in which Mosley's fascists were finally taken on by his people (he threw marbles beneath the hoofs of police horses). The Bangladeshis in the 1970s endured the moronic attentions of the BNP and National Front, and responded with a sit-in that saw the bullies off. But the general story was of tolerance. Bhatia's decision not to interview a single cloth-capped old racist let us whites off lightly.

There were no white villains either in Banglatown Banquet, Tanika Gupta's drama about middle-aged Bangladeshi women struggling for their freedom. The baddies were all Asian men, the only truly decent male among the cast being a coach driver of Italian extraction called Rocky. The film starred the former Indian MP Shabana Azmi as Sofia, the disillusioned wife of an elderly Bangladeshi who, feeling marginalised by his spouse's attendance of yoga classes, goes back to Bangladesh for a holiday and returns after a year with a pregnant teenage bride. Sofia decides not to put up with the humiliation of this new lodger and opts instead for the "disgrace" of divorce. (Bigamy, last time I heard, was a crime, so I would have thought divorce was the least of the legal proceedings that she could have thrown at him.)

Egged on by her trendy daughter, she arrives at the decision on a girls' outing to a stately home, where she chances upon the ghost of an oppressed English lady of the manor. If this conceit isn't tendentious enough, there is also an extended and impenetrable metaphor about a pumpkin that Sofia has nurtured in her window box and which is stolen. Still, it had some truth-telling lines - "Our culture's something you men make up for your own convenience" - and I liked Sofia's story of arriving in London and looking up at the block of flats where she would be living, and imagining they were all for her (and her servants). Like the documentary, it was a little too heart-warming for its own good. Never mind. I could have murdered a curry by the end.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes Special