Filthy Cities: My summer in the sewers

Tuesday 5 April 2011, 16:14

Dan Snow Dan Snow Presenter

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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.

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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.

Dan Snow prepares to go into a sewer.

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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    There is nothing more satisfying than having a ruddy good poo! Not sure of the bed bugs and lice, itchy! I guess we all knew Dan Snow loves a bit of filth though... You dirty old man.

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    Comment number 2.

    I found this virtually unwatchable!......gimmicky and at time poorly edited . Was it really necessary for the endless shots of people walking through mess to get the point!
    Sorry Dan, i was looking forward to your new series but this is a flop....

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    realy interesting programme, i will view street cleaners in a whole new light, we need these guys!! keep up the good work, well done beeb

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Just watched the first episode about Medieval London - it was ace. Very glad it was Dan looking unimpressed at butchering a pig than me having a go at it!

    Side note: Is it just me and people with usernames beginning with "m" who watched?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Well done BBC for a really great informative and well researched program, I must admit it was pretty yucky at times , but great viewing ! I thought Dan Snow came over very well, and I am looking forward to the next episode..Great also for schools, very interesting ! Hope we can obtain a DVD of the series?

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    Comment number 6.

    Great idea, great material, well researched. Special effects well done. For me the program was badly damaged by the sound track. Relentless loud music and other noise, very hard to escape from it. Even that whooshing sound accompanying a some topic changes gave the program a rather trashy feel about it. Camerawork wasn't particularly good - a bit on the trendy side with too many short shots. As soon as we focus the camera is off again. The relentless pace made it hard work watching. The program makers clearly had a type of audience in mind (which didn't include me), but why alienate other audiences who are interested and neither need or want all the racket? Dan Snow is excellent but needs to slow down a bit and stop all this fast walking and talking with the hand-held camera jerking around. All in all, potentially a really good program but let down badly by the program values adopted. I think I'll give the next episode a miss, sadly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Add your comment I agree with mikeym77 ... this programme was high on hype and sensation and low on real content ..... what a waste of time and effort [and money] to dump all that horse dung on the roadway. Come on we expect something far better than this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Totally agree Fairisle - I was just about to make that comment. The BBC have treated viewers like idiots for many years from Blue Peter saying "that's the equivalent of 400 pints of milk" and having 400 pints of milk in the studio to this, buying 6 tons of manure, hiring the lorry, the horse and cart and how much did they have to pay to close the road and then clean it afterwards. Simply telling us 6 tons in one night with a wheelchair, spade and rake taken away in a horse pulled cart - we would have understood!! After all we managed to switch on the TV in the first place!!!! We know what a barrow full of offal looks like so there was no need to wheel it through London. We know what someone washing in the river looks like. Interesting programme but 15 minutes too long with all the demonstations

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Was this programme made by CBBC/Horrible Histories for children and their enjoyment of all things yuck and poo? Why was this broadcast during adult time at 9 pm? Sorry Dan with this disgusting programme you have turned off the history fan and probably the "female Dan Snow fan club". A programme covering how London over-came the waste problem through the ages and the historic figures that brought it about would have been more appropriate. Having watched the preview of next weeks programme, more yuck, more poo, all be it French poo, I will not be watching. PS, No "scratch and sniff" needed next week, just visit certain Paris Metro stations for a real sensory experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I liked the program, it is filthy thou but if you think if a new program is created in the next 100 years. We will have the same impression.
    Altough some comments says about the next program... "just visit some certain Paris Metro for a real seansory experience..." we don't need to go that far... the reality is on our stations."

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The entire programme concept raises more questions than sadly, it answers.
    What was Roman London like? Smaller, with less people certainly but still a thriving, close knit environment nevertheless. Years ago the Caravan visited Herculaneum, near Pompeii, and was shown the Ancient Roman version of a sewer network beneath ground. Looked just like our own today. Their problem seemed to be dying from lead pipe poisoning rather than bubonic plague (along with exploding volcanoes)Did all this sophistication go backwards in the dark and middle ages? What were the town planners thinking about? As an aside observation, I was summoned by the other residents of the Scarlet Caravan to watch this programme elsewhere as it wasn't considered suitable for snacking moments lounging in front of the telly after a day's work in the apocathery.
    A little more sensitivity would have made it far more educational.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Dan - you fell into the common demographic fallacy that because life expectancy was 35, and you are 32, you had only a few years left. But the 35 years is from birth, and you had survived the high risk childhood period, and indeed the first 32 years, and therefore - a demographic estimate - had probably another 27 years under that mortality scenario.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I really don't understand all these posts that are knocking such a good program! For me it was well researched without being boring for the average viewer, yet being historically correct . It must have taken such a lot of commitment from Dan Snow and the crew to make this series, and I take my hat off to you ! Ignore all these bloggers who really don't know what it takes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I cannot fathom the seemingly unending naivety of the self-appointed pseudo-intellectuals. Aside from being really rather too self-congratulatory in their contempt of all things TV. They must have been too busy figuring out how exclamation marks work to note the programme was intended as a gimmick.

    Quite what people were expecting from a programme entitled 'filthy cities' defies belief. Perhaps it is that they haven't seen any BBC history output in the last decade. Evidently they can't possibly have seen any of the promotional material around the show. Maybe the shock of discovering that they have no monopoly on BBC output or indeed history itself has confused their somewhat addled minds.

    You really do have to wonder that they don't sit and watch The Simpsons wondering why everyone is jaundiced. Then again, I'm sure they are far too clever to watch such things and never more so than in public!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Dear yourbbcid
    As a avid viewer of BBC History programmes I watched this programme, decided that it was crap on many levels and will not be watching any more of the series. We licence payers take time to comment on BBC blogs in the vain hope that programme makers will read and take note of the viewers feedback.
    Don't get your Simpsons comparison?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I didn't watch as the trailers put me off - seems like I was wise to miss it. Cbbc is obsessed with things like poo and snot, even thinking that saying the words are funny and it looks like this mentality has spread into mainstream TV. 'mybbcid's reaction is typical of a BBC producer who genuinely thinks there's something wrong the a person if they don't like their programme. I'm not saying this person is BBC staff, but it wouldn't surprise me if he or she were.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.


    'We the licence payers' as opposed to what exactly? I must have missed the election that voted you chief spokesperson or do you fancy yourself as something of a Mary Whitehouse?

    As an avid fan of history programmes you will know that there are varying degrees of gimmickry involved. I would be astounded if all history content was to your unique personal taste. So if 'crap' is your considered opinion, then I'm sure its an opinion you will have held more than once.

    Just because you believe something to be 'crap' doesn't mean everyone else automatically follows suit. That you don't like something is fine, that others seek to deride those who do, is not fine. It is nothing less than the mean spirited behaviour of rather unpleasant people.

    Incidentally, I wonder if Graham might add 'crap' to his list of funny words.


    The churlish nature of your comment belies the maturity you would claim to possess. Someone disagrees with you so they must have a hidden agenda. Do you consider this a reasonable response or perhaps more so the empty hollow words of someone with nothing of significance to add.

    Perhaps it is that you have been watching a little too much CBBC. Still if watching things you don't like is your hobby, then good for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Dear yourbbcid
    I have to agree with Graham, you are being far too sensitive about criticism of this programme; do you work for the BBC?
    I can see that I will have to explain my attempts at humour with the "crap on many levels" comment, during this programme we had, human crap, horse crap, pig crap, abbatoir crap etc etc, it just went on and on, call me weird but it's not my idea of television.
    When you have children you do tend to watch CBBC with them, it's part of being a parent.
    With regard to self-appointed grandeur, you are the one with BBC in your user name.
    I still don't get your Simpson's comparison.
    Kind regards
    M Whitehouse

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    It's great to see proper discussion of this programme, thanks for all your thoughts so far - keep them coming. Radioarm and mybbcid, hopefully you won't end up in virtual mud wrestling though - remember, please keep it clean folks!

    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Clean like Fithy Cities? Glad to hear somebody at the BBC is listening.


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