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From Poplar to Grenfell, and the lands between

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DS Morse (Endeavour, PBS)

In a previous blog post, I commented how the Period Drama is my favourite genre to watch. This year, it was interesting to see two of my favourite series talk about tower blocks. As we reach the third anniversary of Grenfell , I saw both Call the Midwife and Endeavour comment on how these tower blocks were optimistic schemes. As the tower blocks multiply in the London East End, a new society rises. Meanwhile, in Endeavour a tower block collapses in Oxfordshire (quite like Ronan Point in Canning Town: London, 1968). Watching both these shows, we know how this story ends, in ashes; poor people, immigrants, refugees, Black and brown people, people with disabilities as victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.

It is also tragic to see that in the stories of tower blocks in both series, there is also a Black history that goes beyond the show. In Call the Midwife’s ninth season, we encounter a patient with Sickle Cell, common in those of African descent. “The population around here is changing, I have to be prepared to deal with new things” says Dr. Turner. The arrival of the Windrush Generation, tied with the baby boom brought challenges for the state. Where would they house people? People in a society where Enoch Powell feared “the Black man would hold the whip hand over the White man.”

Lucille Anderson (Call the Midwife, BBC)

In Endeavour, the Cranmer House collapses, which may be inspired by the true-to-life incident of Ronan Point, a tower block in the Canning Town district in the East End of London. Ronan Point partially collapses a year and half before the events of ‘Degüello’ in the sixth season of Endeavour. In London, there were four fatalities and an additional seventeen were injured. Initially said to be a gas explosion, like at Cranmer, it was later deduced that Ronan Point’s collapse was due to structural deficiencies. Laws were eventually changed in hope of preventing incidents like this.

Though, that did not help those that died at Grenfell, where seventy-two (that were accounted for) lost their lives on June 14, 2017, including still-born Logan Gomes after his parents escaped the tragedy in the south-west of London.

However, this episode of Endeavour must be one of my favourites of any show I have seen. Not only for its sociohistorical significance, but for its ability to tell a story with excellent pacing in a way that I only really see in journalism films, such as The Post (starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks) Not at any moment is this boring to watch (nor is the entirety of the series). Each episode of Endeavour plays out almost like a film noir. Especially ‘Degüello’, which makes me think of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).

(Source: BBC via Department of Health and Social Care)

When a librarian is murdered at Oxford’s world famous Bodleian, DS Endeavour Morse and DI Thursday have no leads but a pair of muddy boot prints. With both suspects having motives, Morse explores into their pasts, showing bribery and corruption at the highest level, including links to Cranmer and the murder of their colleague DC George Fancy. In its ninety minutes, ‘Degüello’ is pure edge-of-your-seat drama. It must be one of my favourite season finales of all-time. And that is high praise, indeed.

Early on we already begin to see the cracks in Cranmer. Quite literally. When tragedy strikes, it is up to Morse and company to find the survivors in the rubble of what was supposed to be an optimistic look at Britain of the future. Watching shows set in the 1960s, it’s eerie to know how this story ends (if it has ended at all). In this time of Coronavirus we are in a country with a 30,000+ death toll, many of which could have been prevented. The same can be said with Grenfell, where stakeholders seemingly cut corners to save money and at least seventy-two people unnecessarily lost their lives.

When I see characters in canonical novels described as dark or black, I always think skin colour, especially Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights who I always read so, particularly him coming from a former slave city, Liverpool (Wuthering Heights, Film4)

With these two shows set in the same time period, both with commentaries on tower blocks (CTM’s being a looser narrative), we in the present have the gift of hindsight. Yet, with Grenfell we continue to make the same mistakes. If they are mistakes at all. Did the state’s contempt for the working class begin with Grenfell? No, just look at Charles Dickens novels, or how the characters of Wuthering Heights treat Heathcliff who Mr Earnshaw brought back from Liverpool. These are works of fiction, but how fictional are they? Art imitates life, but when life starts imitating art is what scares me.

For centuries, those that have, have always treated those that don’t with disdain. Whether that’s the actions of the British Empire; or the use of child labour (see the Factory Act, didn’t do much). Or the Mines Act (1842) prohibiting girls and women working the mines. Nonetheless, today’s progress on equalities, including the Human Rights Act (1998) would also dictate that the Factory Act (1833) as not fit for purpose, with age ten as the minimum age for boys to work the mines. English common sense indeed!

This adaptation Bleak House may be one of my favourite shows ever made (BBC)

How fictional are the stories of Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair that comment on class? With the ongoing investigation into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, how will the history books look back on it, in say a century? What about the Windrush Scandal? In the ‘Case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce’, in Bleak House, it ends with nobody getting anything. Years of legal fees and legal jargon that nobody understands. Both Call the Midwife and Endeavour show characters at the mercy of systems. A London tower block black as coal doesn’t discriminate but institutions do, systems do.

When you run Grenfell, Ronan, Cranmer, or even the Coronavirus pandemic parallel to British history, is it really surprising that the state is cutting corners, readily throwing society’s most vulnerable, including the poor, under the bus?

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