The Secret Life of the Motorway, BBC4

by | Aug 21, 2007 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

While many of the historical details intrigued, the problem with chronicling the motorway is that, by its very nature, the construction of one road is very much like the construction of the next and so there were huge stretches of concrete padding.

What was good about it?

• The origins of the motorway, not just in Britain but also in Europe. Unsurprisingly, the first nations to implement motorways were fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, which was illustrated by Mussolini driving beneath a autostrada bridge being saluted by pedestrians above him and Hitler ‘mucking in’ during the building of an autobahn.

• The excitement surrounding the Preston Bypass, which later evolved into the M6. Engineer John Baxter remembered striding out over the resplendent “green grass covered with dew”, and then reflecting how it was his job to rip out all this pastoral lavishness and replace it with a concrete river. But this didn’t quell his enthusiasm for the road and he was proud to be one of the first people to drive along its eight miles in 1958.

• Piers Brendon also captured the anticipation of a new era in motoring as “with no speed limit speed was the attraction”, and that the Bypass evoked “feelings of tremendous excitement”.

• The reliably risible public safety films about safe driving on the motorway. “This driver is about to commit one of the deadly sins of the motorway!” No, he wasn’t reaching for his spanner and bludgeoning to death a stranded motorist – he had missed his junction and needed to drive over the central grass verge to the opposite side of the road. “John, what are you going to do?” squealed his female passenger. “I’m getting out. I think we shall be killed!”

• The comical news report in which a correspondent interviews a driver who had just come through horrendous fog, during which the passenger in the car feels the need to echo every single word the driver has just said. “How far have you got?” “Five mile.” “About five mile.” How does this compare with other fogs you’ve driven in.” “Oooh, this is the worst.” “About the worst.”

• Transport minister Barbara Castle’s pioneering determination to inflict speed limits ands seatbelts onto the motorways in the mid-60s to reduce the rising number of crashes. This outraged one woman driver who complained: “It’s ridiculous if you’re expected to dawdle along the motorway at 70mph.” She added that the highest speed she had achieved was about 115mph.

• Philip Glenister’s measured narration.

What was bad about it?

• The decline started after the birth of the motorways as the building of the next strip, the M1, looked very much like the previous one. And this is the fundamental problem, you can only use film of working class men driving diggers or cranes swinging into action to build bridges – the very act of building a motorway strips away the variety of landscape that would have kept the interest, building motorways is an intrinsically homogenising experience.

• This was evidently realised by the producers who tried to pad out and digress to admirably try and inject a little diversity into the film of the constructions with anecdotes about how much of the workforce were Irish navvys, the crippling effect of the Beeching Report on the local railway infrastructure, and the life of people living near one of the many building sites – but each dragged the narrative fatally away from the central theme of the motorways.

• Perhaps we don’t share his fervour for the road but Jonathan Glancey’s efforts to empathise with drivers using motorways for the first time came across as ostentatious hyperbole. The drivers would “press on the brakes, down the gearbox, crunch, crunch, then turn into this shimmering new road leading into this New Jerusalem.” It’s just a new road, not the ascent into Heaven to bathe in the divine light of God.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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