A dose of reality

Stories of inequality in London prove that the BBC can still do documentaries

<strong>The Tower</

The Tower is an eight-part BBC documentary series (Mondays, 10.35pm) and, if you have not yet caught it, I think you should give it a go: even with only three programmes left to run, it would be worth the effort. Produced and directed by Anthony Wonke, it is the ultimate reply to those who complain that the BBC doesn't make documentaries like it used to, or that most factual human-interest programmes have been contaminated by the pollutant that is reality TV.

Filmed over three years, and now unfolding in generous 50-minute segments, it is full of real people, some of whose behaviour is extreme, yet never do you feel they are performing for the camera. The direction is unobtrusive, the editing gentle, the commentary minimal. Its plots, uncovered thanks to a combination of journalistic graft and happy accident, suddenly grip and then - as in life - wither and die. Plenty is left unexplained. It's great. Watch it, and you'll find that you don't much care about Crowngate, phone-ins and the fixing of a few pathetic competitions; you'll just be glad all over again that the BBC exists at all.

Five years ago, Lewisham Council sold a tower block in the middle of the run-down Pepys estate to Berkeley Homes. The tenants were removed, some unwillingly, and the 144 flats renovated. The block was then named - who knows why? - the Z Building, and marketed for all it was worth; a recurring motif of The Tower is a photo from this campaign of a girl in a sequinned dress standing on a balcony, the lights of Canary Wharf twinkling behind her. Wonke set himself the task of following the supposed gentrification of this part of Deptford, telling the stories of those who left, those who've replaced them and those who must watch this human traffic from damp and miserable council properties nearby.

His approach is amazingly even-handed. The incomers are what used to be called yuppies and, with their kitchen specifications and their potted orchids, it would be easy to show them as grasping and vacuous. But Wonke tells their stories with all the poignancy that he does those of the have-nots. They, too, struggle at times. This isn't class war: it's life.

Last Monday's episode (23 July) was the most touching so far, even if it did lack Leol and Nicky, a heroin addict and an alcoholic who met in a skip in which they both happened to be foraging for scrap metal (Leol and Nicky share a kind of existential optimism and the same bad teeth). Wonke themes each programme - for this episode the theme was commitment. An Asian couple who worked in the City and were going to live in the Z Building after their semi-arranged marriage went to Pakistan to get hitched. Meanwhile, back on the bend in the river, Kelley Garcia tied the knot with Wayne Tapper after seven years and two children.

Finally, there was Shakor, a devout one-eyed Muslim, who lives with his wife and children in the Z's sister tower. Like the residents of the Z, their flat has a great view of the river, the only difference being that Shakor has to wipe the condensation off the glass before he can see it. A former drug dealer, he has a way with words - half pulpit, half rap. "We was on pit of the hellfire," he said of his old way of life. "Teetering on the edge kind of thing."

It's such a cliché to describe something as Dickensian, and when I first saw The Tower's subtitle - A Tale of Two Cities (a subtitle that is emphasised by a voice-over telling you that, for some of Deptford's residents, it is the best of times and for others, the worst) - I was infuriated. Now that I've watched it, however, I am forced to concede that Dickensian is the word. It's not the flattening poverty set against occasional glittering wealth, nor is it the way Wonke makes you feel that London is patterned with dark crevices down which the unfortunate can too easily fall; it's his ear for dialogue. Luxuriating in nearly seven hours of airtime, he has let his subjects speak. The result is the authentic voice of 21st-century London: funny, angry and full of sentiment by turns.

Pick of the week

Athens: the truth about democracy
28 July, 8.05pm, Channel 4
Bettany Hughes on Socrates in the fascinating second part of this doc.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
2 August, 10pm, More 4
Comedy drama by Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing.

America's Deadliest Prison Gang
2 August, 10.30pm, Channel 4
The Aryan Brotherhood exposed.

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 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?