BBC Two has embarked on a mammoth six part series going behind the tracks of The Tube, promising a unique look at an institution like never before..
This review covers Episodes 1-3.
This isn’t the first time that the Tube has been subject to a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The early noughties ITV programme The Tube also covered life on the Underground. At the time it was a fascinating snapshot of how life is handled beneath the streets and the BBC version is no less fascinating.
The production team have unrivalled access to key members of Underground staff stretching from cleaners to the Chief Executive. The stresses and strains are evident throughout these three episodes as the team deal with suicides to meeting tight refurbishment deadlines – but unlike Channel 4’s Confessions from the Underground, the lighter side of life on the Tube is also, mercifully, shown.
It is a very candid documentary with moments to make you wince. Certainly Night Shift Cleaning Supervisor Neringa Simiene’s comment that before coming to England she viewed it as a polite and happy place, and instead she ends up trailing around after vomiting customers should be enough to make any English person feel ashamed.
The staff, considering my experiences of being yelled at and harassed on the Underground, to my surprise are deeply instilled with a sense of doing right by their passengers. This was evident to an extent in Confessions where concern was mooted for passengers safety. Perhaps there I was playing devils advocate in suggesting that a sense of doing right by the passengers was to sidestep potential prosecution, but in The Tube, a number of employees were shown going beyond the call of duty in looking after passengers – you might hope those sounding off on camera are suitably ashamed.
Station Supervisor Clare King laments [of passengers] “They think the whole world owes them”. Frequently, passengers were seen yelling at the ‘poor’ service to helpless staff. The phrase ‘tunnel vision’ has never seemed more appropriate for how people behave when they are on the Underground. No doubt a whole new level of respect has (albeit most likely briefly) been created by this documentary for the staff dealing with such passengers. It almost feels like there is a definite class culture in London. Apprentice Christopher Cooper’s comment, when asked if he thinks Londoner’s appreciate his work on ensuring Tube carriages are safe and well-made, that “They’re all bankers – with well paid jobs, aren’t they?” is quite telling of an ‘us and them’ feeling, which is then reinforced by visual and anecdotal evidence that the most likely person to explode is a smart businessman.
Yet, the levels of staffing seem disproportional across the network. If there are 200 Revenue Protection Officers to cover the entire network including the Overground and DLR, but there are 40 members of staff at the Lost Property Office – would it not make more sense for staff to look after live people rather than objects? I suppose the answer lies in providing a good service, the number and range of items (keep your eyes open for pieces of armor and Samurai swords amongst others) lost on the Underground is absolutely astounding and the operation to assist with returning them to their rightful owners seems to be as large a maze as the Tube system itself. Somewhat surprisingly given how large the system is and how dishonest you might assume fellow passengers might be, it works, many of the items are actually reunited with their owners.
In conclusion, a complex and multi-layered picture emerges of a stretched organisation that is still smiling in the face of adversity and feels, in terms of its attitudes, very, very British. Candid, engaging and with much depth, The Tube is also very balanced showing the harder, brutal side of one of the world’s largest transit systems, but also the lighter, more rewarding side. The facts and figures starkly presented are enlightening, as is the chance to accompany the staff working on the weekend engineering works to see how it works and understand exactly how narrow the margin for error is. Provoking much discussion in public, and Underground, The Tube is one of the best documentaries to have come out of the BBC for a long, long time.