Review: Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooders

For fans of Have I Got News For You, this documentary has Ian Hislop, first in a top hat and then on the streets of central London with a loudspeaker. So basically, it has everything you could want from a television show.

On a more serious note, this documentary is comprised of a series of lively biographies of Victorian do-gooders doing good. And while being a rather light-hearted taken on history (there are some particularly amusing cartoons of a young William Wilberforce) it avoids making itself ridiculous in the process. Rather than simply listing the great and their good works, Hislop also seeks to confront the harsh reality of Victorian life. By not shirking away from the darker aspects of this period, and by acknowledging that for all the good done there were thousands upon thousands who did not benefit from it, Hislop’s documentary remains genuinely engaging and interesting. After all, for all the tongue-in-cheek guides to social climbing published here in our Handbook, the Victorian era was one where life could truly be (and for most was) violent, brutal and short.

Hislop’s documentary focuses on some of the well-known figures of the age, such as William Wilberforce and Robert Owen, and draws out some who have faded out on the spotlight. He tells the story of the Birmingham preacher George Dawson, who sought to spread a civic gospel. Octavia Hill’s attempts (and later success) in improving the housing situation for London’s poor was particularly moving, and telling. When turned away but yet another estate agent she asked him where he expected the poor to live. His response was that he didn’t know, but that they must be kept out of St John’s Wood Estate.

In short, the documentary was engaging to watch and provided not only an overview of individual do-gooders, but also an insight into the wider social, economic, political and religious experiences of the Victorian world.

This review covers only the first part of a three programme series, which is currently being repeated on the BBC and is available on BBC iPlayer.

Select Bibliography

‘Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooders’, BBC2,

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