Thursday 18 January 2018

Programme of the week: Filthy Cities

Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitington

People tend to sentimentalise the past, and hanker for a time when the streets weren't clogged up with fuming cars and our lives weren't ruled by the whims of our mobile phones.

What they forget, however, is how revoltingly smelly and insanitary we would find the 18th and 19th centuries if we could step back into them. I remember reading in a biography of Dickens that if a contemporary person were to enter a Victorian tavern, their first instinct would be to throw up because of the awful odours.

In this entertaining series, which began last week, historian Dan Snow (above) sets out to recreate the atmosphere and conditions of European cities in the past, and this week he's in 18th-century Paris.

The city of light may be a famously fragrant place these days, but back then it was one of the most notoriously filthy and stinky burgs in western Europe. And in the days before the revolution that rocked the world, it wasn't just the huddled masses who were unwashed.

At Versailles, for example, it is reckoned that the royal party which traipsed daily through the gilded corridors must have smelt like a passing convention of skunks. Beneath the fusty wigs and the white powder, even the royal skin rarely saw water, and, although Louis XIV and his spendthrift Austrian wife Marie Antoinette lived pretty grandly, their entourage had to make do with appalling living conditions.

At its height, the Palais de Versailles was like an overpopulated apartment block: there were around 350 tiny living units on the upper floors, all without water or toilets. There were no functioning toilets in the palace at all before 1768, and by the time of the revolution there were still only nine, all of these reserved for the use of the king and his family.

No wonder they were overthrown, and no wonder either that the appalling smell at Versailles was said to be the worst of all the palaces of Europe.

Things were even worse in the capital, and in 'Filthy Cities: Revolutionary Paris', Snow and his team use CGI and historical recreation to peel back the layers of time and reveal the city's streets as they once were -- foul, fetid and a place where ordinary people lived in grotesque poverty and were prey to all sorts of diesase.

Snow even visits a perfumier who helps him recreate the unique stench of 18th-century Paris, and he also has a go at what must have been one of the worst jobs in history -- tanning leather by traditional 18th-century methods, which involved the application of dog poo and urine. Charming.

He takes the short journey out to Versailles to get a rare glimpse into the spectacular private rooms of Marie Antionette, which included that first palace toilet that was out of bounds to all but the royal posterior.

Back in Paris, Snow comes face to face with that devilish killing machine, the guillotine. He finds out what happened to the thousands of bodies that piled up in the city's cemeteries during the 'Terror' of 1793.

And he discovers that filthy and monumentally unjust living conditions were among the factors that drove ordinary Parisians to mount a bloody revolution that would transform their lives and reshape their country for ever.

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