The Secret Life of the National Grid

Beauty is uncovered in the most surprising of subjects

The Secret Life of the National Grid

Lighting. It's a deal breaker, isn't it? Impossible to live with someone who likes dazzling beams when you prefer warm gloom, and vice versa. As a teenager, I embarked on a passionate campaign against my parents' penchant for 100- watt bulbs - a struggle that continues, 22 years after I left home.

In the 1970s, everyone had fluorescent strip lights in the kitchen, and my parents were no exception. But they extended the theme - let
us call it interrogation suite chic - to the rest of the house. It remains the same today. As an adult, I've been known to sofa-sit in sunglasses - not that such physical sarcasm has any impact. The dimmer switch, the table lamp, the church candle: if they are aware of the existence of these things, they give no outward sign. They probably think I'm just being all annoying and metropolitan.

I thought about this as I watched the first part of The Secret Life of the National Grid (26 October, 9pm). In 1933, when the grid was complete and the lights finally came on, people had to be taught about lighting. Pamphlets were issued. Today, 20 per cent of the grid's electricity is used for lighting (some 15 per cent, probably, by my parents). Among the film's talking heads was the interior designer Nina Campbell, who evangelised about the importance of "layering" one's lights. I thought she sounded daffy, but still: what a useful foil for the voices of those who remembered the moment.

What did people think, once the bulbs were glowing? "[They thought:] look at all the dust! We'll have to repaint!" recalled one man. Government propaganda films of the day extolled the virtues of electricity as a move from dirt to cleanliness; the project came to seem like a kind of moral crusade.

The director of The Secret Life of the National Grid is Gaby Hornsby, who brought us a similar set of films about British motorways. She is an extremely deft film-maker, and her documentaries manage to be not only comprehensive - crammed with technical and historical detail, not to mention priceless goodies from the film archives - but quirky, too. In the section devoted to power stations, we were treated to a clip of the old Nationwide title sequence (it featured, you will recall, a delightful set of cooling towers, with sheep grazing in the foreground); in the section devoted to heating, people laughingly recalled their Berry Magicoal fires (the ones featuring fake coals lit by rotating light bulbs). Sweetest of all were the scenes at National Grid HQ today, where the men in charge of the supply could be seen poring over the Radio Times, the better to predict when the evening surge would occur. In spite of the best efforts of Starbucks et al, we are still, it seems, a nation of tea drinkers, and there is nothing like the sound of the Emmerdale theme tune to send us racing to our kettles.

Hornsby knows that beauty is to be found in the quotidian, if only one bothers to look. When work began on the grid in the late 1920s - the project required 4,000 miles of transmission cable, and 100,000 men to lay it down - there were protests from the likes of John Galsworthy and Rudyard Kipling, who thought Reginald Blomfield's pylons invasive and ugly. But, as we saw in footage of the Highlands, they are not ugly at all. One retired engineer compared them lyrically to the Great Wall of China; Will Self likened them to human figures, to a chain gang. Blomfield, an architect by training, considered the Greek origins of the word "pylon" - it referred to a particular kind of Egyptian gateway - and duly gave his metal towers a Cleopatra-like elegance, somehow managing to render them at once both willowy and angular.

A little later, Hornsby interviewed an elderly man who had worked at Battersea Power Station, on which work began in 1929. In this man, she had found her ideal pair of eyes. With a voice as warm as toast, he described entering Giles Gilbert Scott's deco cathedral through the vast doors. "A brass knob the size of a Jaffa orange," he said, his eyes closing in bliss. "It takes two hands to open it, and then you go inside and . . . oh . . . magnificent." His voice fell and rose like a current, surging powerfully at the memory of all that parquet and wrought iron.

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.