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Block, The (1972)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Block, The (1972)
BBC1, tx. 19/9/1972
75 minutes, colour
ProducerPaul Watson
EditorDonald Fairservice

Narrated by: Peter Myers

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The dilapidated living conditions of tenants in a block of council flats in London and the tenants' protests to the council.

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The Block is striking in its similarities to films made several decades earlier about squalid housing conditions. In particular, it bears a disconcerting resemblance to Housing Problems (1935) in its depiction of cramped and dilapidated living conditions and the quietly desperate observations of the unfortunate residents, addressed directly to camera.

The programme was made early in the career of Paul Watson, best known for his pioneering use of 'fly on the wall' observational filmmaking in his ground-breaking series The Family (BBC, 1974) and in the widely admired Sylvania Waters (BBC, 1993). In The Block, Watson interviews tenants sympathetically and allows them to speak for themselves, taking care not to sentimentalise their situation. Although there is a narrator, it is the words of the residents themselves that resonate, as they talk fluently and unselfconsciously of their frustrations.

The plight of the young woman, Edie, recalls Ken Loach's fictional character in Cathy Come Home (BBC, tx 16.11.1966). As with Cathy, when Edie has children the state intervenes; both mothers lose their infants to the social services and are simultaneously robbed of their hope for the future.

There is little cause for hope at the end of the programme, when the tenants' continued protests fail to persuade the council to honour their promises to re-house them. Their only visible solace is demonstrated in a sequence in which a young woman, haemorrhaging after an abortion, is carried from the block on a stretcher still smoking her cigarette.

The Block was shown in a prime time slot on BBC1 and generated much debate. One Daily Mail reviewer suggested that the programme "provided plenty of illustrations for the argument that these people are homeless because they are lazy, unorganised and smoke too much." But this was a rare unsympathetic perspective. Other reviewers admired the programme's honesty and were stunned by its revelations. Dennis Potter wrote "I cannot remember feeling quite so caught up or, more painful, quite so caught out by any other television documentary I have ever seen."

Ros Cranston

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Video Clips
1. Suffering the block (3:18)
2. Them and Us (4:01)
3. Social Security spies (3:04)
Complete programme (1:15:07)
Housing Problems (1935)