When the BBC got in touch with me and suggested a series about the history of filth I was suitably nervous.

In Filthy Cities, they wanted a series which explored the idea that we humans create a huge amount of waste that, if left untreated, can destroy us.

By looking at how human societies have overcome the problem of their own filth we can understand a huge amount about the changes that have taken place in our society: the rise of the mega-city, lengthening life expectancies, less disease and the far better sanitation that we take for granted in the UK now.

I said yes, knowing it would be an adventure and that I would learn a huge amount about a part of history that I do not know enough about.

Filth may be less glamorous than kings, queens, castles and politics but I knew it would turn out to be just as fascinating and arguably more important.

Each city - London, Paris and New York - had not only to have had a filthy past but had to have been instrumental in developing modern systems of waste management: sewers, government regulation or scientific breakthroughs.

For the first time in history the majority of humanity now lives in cities. These three cities tell us how this became possible.

During the series - which really is immersive history at its best - I spent time in sewers, studied the skeleton of a plague victim, shovelled tons of horse poo, was bitten by a rat, fed to leeches, and used dog poo and urine to treat leather hides.

I used rancid meat to make mince, cleaned an apartment that had not been cleaned for thirty years, butchered a pig and used its entrails to make sausages, and was eaten alive by bed bugs and lice.

It was a busy summer and friends could not believe what I was getting up to.

I had great fun and learned a good deal. Perhaps my most important realisation was simply the debt that we owe the people who get rid of our waste and ensure we have clean water.

Without sewage works or bin collectors, we would drown in our waste within days.

They make life in big cities possible. That is why the absence of these services in the past has led to massive outbreaks of disease or even revolution.

One of my favourite experiences was driving an electric car around New York. It was 100 years old.

Incredibly many of the early cars were electric. It was only when Henry Ford successfully produced the Model T that the combustion-engined car became the obvious choice for millions of people.

I came very close to scraping this precious vehicle and I think the owner seriously regretted letting me use it.

People often ask me, now that I've been through it all, whether I am permanently scarred.

I must say that I have had quite enough of the smell of raw sewage, but in fact it has made me more interested in the hidden realities of our existence.

Thanks to Filthy Cities I peeled back a bit of the sanitised veneer of our society and it simply fired my enthusiasm to learn more.

I hope you really enjoy the series, which peels back the layers of time to give you the opportunity to experience our filthy past.

Dan Snow is the presenter of Filthy Cities.

Filthy Cities starts on Tuesday, 5 April at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC HD.

For further programme times please visit the upcoming episodes page.

You can press your Red Button at the start of episodes one and two for extra filthy footage and facts, and you can get a special scratch and sniff card to experience the smells of the past.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

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  • Comment number 38. Posted by andrewdavidlong

    on 30 Apr 2011 10:14

    Although I kind of enjoyed the series - the 'poo' and 'entrails' bit was laid on a bit thick. There was also quite a bit of repetition. I got the impression this was history 'dumbed' down a bit to make it more accessible.

    The New York programme was the most enjoyable precisely because it turned down the 'poo' aspect.

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  • Comment number 37. Posted by hguillemain

    on 26 Apr 2011 21:40

    London and New York programmes are just as good as Paris. I loved the three of them

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by hguillemain

    on 26 Apr 2011 19:01

    I have just watched the programme on filthy Paris. Félicitations ! France has made a lot of efforts to restore ancient buildings. It helps to create a sense of national identity and is a powerful tourist asset. The drawback is that some French people have forgotten about the filth of the past. Some critics today say that France looks like a museum. I am French and I have been very pleased to hear about the gruesome past of France in a way that is never used in French media. Some footage of filthy towns around the world today would be a good idea to remind us that the respect of others begins with the respect of the place you share with others.

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  • Comment number 35. Posted by dashalong

    on 25 Apr 2011 16:06

    I enjoyed watching the series even though I found much of it too graphic. It was quite informative and my favorite was "Revolutionary Paris" but I have a question.

    Why is it that part 3-Industrial New York has a "contains upsetting scenes" warning?

    I watched all three parts and actually thought "Revolutionary Paris" had more "upsetting scenes" with the executions and bodies.

    The filth and disease of Industrial New York as potrayed in the series seemed quite mild compared to that of London and Paris so why the "contains some upsetting scenes" warning for Industrial New York? It just seems quite odd or did I miss something?

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by europeeno

    on 22 Apr 2011 10:12

    Fascinating series that really made me apprciate the iPlayer - not only to allow me to catch up with the first episode about London but rewind often as there was so much to take in. The conditions in all three cities were bloomin grim but the programme about Paris had the most "shock" factor for me - the thought of executed bodies just left lying around on the streets would have been truly terrifying.

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  • Comment number 33. Posted by Klytamnestra

    on 21 Apr 2011 18:59

    I enjoyed this series, although the second episode on Paris was my favourite because of the greater socio-political context. I did like the new style drama and graphics too which never seemed contrived and enhanced my viewing!

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  • Comment number 32. Posted by junie

    on 21 Apr 2011 11:23

    What a fantastic journey Dan took us on. The whole production was cleverly done, and enabled us to "be" there. Many of our cities in Britain are less beautiful and less clean than they were twenty years ago. Perhaps we need another "White Army"!

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  • Comment number 31. Posted by caissier

    on 21 Apr 2011 10:16

    ...... and furthermore, a link to Industrial Revelations presented by Mark Williams, which I hope will be accepted as contribution to discussion of presentation technique. I did feel that in programme 3 Dan was moving towards his relaxed personal spontenaity. I do feel Dan is a good bloke and any complaint is not about him at all.

    The trouble is more to do with a lack of confidence in people's ability to be interested in the subject. There is such misguided effort to make a fascinating subject interesting. What was all that driving around of a model T Ford, the digression into how guillotines work. the loony business of shovelling manure through the night, the visit to a treatment plant to tap off some liquid excrement (you say it smells bad?!!), shoving foul stuff into poor Parisians faces ...... This is Blue Peter stuff. It is an insult to viewers intelligence akin to tabloid journalism - expecting the least of viewers.

    That the BBC should come to this.

    http://www.industrialrevelations.net/more-industrial-revelations/series-2-mark-williams/comment-page-1/#comment-159

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by caissier

    on 20 Apr 2011 20:15

    The New York programme was much the best, containing much interesting information, but the abiding handicap of BBC documentaries now is the terrible need to blitz the viewer with visual cacophany. There has been an abandonment of fluent film-making and thogether this adds up to a massively distracting pantomime of effects. Concentrating on the subject matter is almost impossible without the replay iplayer function. I imagine this is the dreaded immersiveness which means if Dan mentions swimming, next moment, to let us know what 'swimming' is, he's wading in.

    Somebody ought to wake up to the fact that this counterproductive innanity ..... and I wish Dan would ease up on the Mad Strangler hand gestures. The programme itself? 6/10 - what I could make out of it. Twenty years ago Gavin Weightman made a brilliant series on the Making of Modern London - an engrossing model of how it should be done.

    By programme 3 Dan had relaxed and was much better; being more himself. The actor Mark Williams has excellently presented a series on many aspects of industrial development. Passionate, jokey, watchable and authentic. I wish the BBC could take a cue from him. Unlikely.

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by Adrienne

    on 20 Apr 2011 12:56

    I absoluetly loved filthy cities! Informative and accurate with great cgis!
    More history like this please!

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