Underground heroes

Another great documentary from the BBC - this time about sewer workers

<strong>Boys From the Brown

We are in the middle of a truly great run of documentaries at the BBC. I mean it. People go on about how much they mourn the old strands (Modern Times, 40 Minutes), but this is just a sign that they don't watch much television. The summer has given us some dazzling programmes, notably The Tower and Abroad Again in Britain with Jonathan Meades, while BBC4 screens an interesting one almost every week, most recently the brilliant and timely series The Secret Life of the Motorway. Forget the naughtiness that occurred when the Queen met Annie Leibovitz: it's increasingly obvious that this is a red herring, and a very smelly one at that.

Jeremy Paxman was absolutely right to criticise the cult of interactivity in his MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, but his analysis of the state of TV in general verged at times on the hysterical (I wonder how much he actually watches). I'm not persuaded that all this public hand-wringing will result in anything much - and for as long as it goes on, it is likely to have a catastrophic effect on both self-esteem and, worse, creativity.

My glory days theory got another boost on Monday (9pm) when I plonked myself in front of Boys From the Brown Stuff on BBC2. (Although this documentary was made by the independent Blast! Films, it was the BBC that had the foresight to commission and executive-produce it.) It was about "flushers" - the men who work in the 40,000 miles of sewer beneath London and whose job it is to, well, keep our movements moving. Once, there were 900 flushers in London. Now, thanks to more efficient machinery, only 39 remain. David Clews, the film's director, divided his narrative deftly in two. One storyline involved the retirement of Kenny, who'd been flushing for 39 years, and the question of which of his colleagues - Martin or Vince - would replace him as supervisor. The other followed 12 new recruits on the job.

The two groups were separated by an age gap of up to 30 years, but it was what they had in common that took you by surprise: a love of a job that would make most people sick. Craig, whose father had been a flusher before him, spoke longingly of the £20,000 he'd be earning, and of the stability that tunnel life would bring.

On one level, this was Fungus the Bogeyman's ultimate night in: giant turds, swollen condoms, rats as big as guinea pigs. During a scene in which Martin waded through some of the three tonnes of household fat that pass into the system every day, I felt myself begin to gag. But it was really a film about men, and that was why I fell for it. Clews's subjects were decent, funny and hard-working, but they were also just a little bewildered by modern life: they came out of the ground blinking like startled moles. There was Vince, whose wife had left him in the Eighties, and who had never quite recovered from the pain of it; Martin, whose children were only recently back in his life after an absence of more than a decade; and Gary, still living with his mum at the age of 35.

I loved the way that these men - so macho, yet so baby-soft underneath it all - talked of their troubles. When they described their various regrets, they did so sparely and without self-pity. You understood why they liked life in the tunnels; this was their domain and, being woman-free, it released them from the shyness and inhibitions that came over them whenever they were faced with a member of the opposite sex.

I wanted Vince to get Kenny's job because there was something about his gentle face and his pristine kitchen that tore at my heart (in a movie, he would be played by Timothy Spall), but when he did, I started to feel even more anxious. A supervisor spends his days above ground, mostly. Would this do for Vince? Could daylight and a blinking computer screen ever make him happy?

We never found out, with the result that I'm still worrying about him. So let me say it again: if this is a low point for factual television, then I'm Pauline Prescott.

Pick of the week

Coming Down the Mountain
2 September, 9pm, BBC1
Sibling rivalry between brothers, one with Down's syndrome.

Hell's Kitchen
3 September, 9pm, ITV1
Marco Pierre White turns celebrities into chefs. Supposedly.

Consenting Adults
5 September, 9pm, BBC4
Drama about Lord Wolfenden, an unlikely champion of gay rights.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?