Tonight Bow E3 hits your TV screen. You probably won't notice, because it's appearing at the same time as the opening round of The Apprentice. But switch to Channel 4 at nine, or use your favourite catch-up service later, and you can enjoy an hour spent down Roman Road Market. It's all part of the new series Mary Portas Queen Of The High Street, in which everyone's favourite shopping guru descends on various retail centres and attempts to enhance their profitability. Later in the series she'll be in Liskeard and Margate, but episode 1 sees Mary doing up a traditional East End market cor blimey how's yer father.
Tonight's show was planned last summer, around the time that the Department for Communities and Local Government were selecting their shortlist of Portas Pilots to receive central funding. Roman Road didn't appear on the initial list, and there have been mutterings that it only sneaked on later because the TV company wanted it. "Roman Road would be the perfect road to bring back to its former glory" they said in an email to the civil servant in charge of the project. "Roman Rd is on top of our list and we're still hopeful that all our towns are part of the government selected towns" they said in another. There's no indication that the civil service reacted to this prodding, obviously, but hey presto here's Roman Road kicking off the series tonight.
Tonight's show was filmed in November last year. Mary came down to Roman Road on a regular basis to talk to stallholders and try to boost takings. She tried a bit of rebranding with swathes of stripy material, and brought in a few food trucks to stir demand. She also had words with the council after discovering that traders earned their pitch merely by rising to the top of the waiting list, not because what they had to sell was appropriate. A minor flurry of local publicity ensued, which some residents almost noticed, and the TV company duly filmed the results.
Tonight's show was edited earlier this year. I know this because the production company contacted me in February to ask if they could use a photo of mine. For narrative reasons they needed an image of the Woolworths that used to stand halfway down the street, a sight rarely included on London's tourist trail, and I just happened to have one lurking on Flickr. There's no guarantee it survived the cut, but if you see a picture of Bow's Woolworths with Christmas sparkle in the window, that's mine. It'll probably be accompanied by a shot of the Iceland that's taken over the building since, just to make a point, but that's Roman Road for you. Hell, we've even still got a Wimpy.
I don't know precisely what tonight's show will reveal, but I thought I'd wander 'down the Roman' on Saturday to see how the market's doing now. Are there any obvious improvements six months on, or have things reverted to normal now the TV cameras and Mary have gone away?
As markets go, Roman Road's fairly smart. Don't come here looking for pan scrubbers and value detergent, it's not that kind of place. I only spotted one stall doing flowers, and one doing fruit and veg, and one doing cheap plastic smartphone covers. Instead the majority of the stalls are clothes or fashion related, which I think has always been the case, but feels a little more concentrated than before. Dresses flapped in the wind on Saturday, and drizzle splattered the handbags on display. One stall offered Bling Bling Shoes, while another had women crowding around to pick from a varied selection of cheap accessories. Ladies of a larger size found their dress choices beneath awnings down a sidestreet, while younger customers could pick up a "silk dress" for £3. Is every garment along here the 100% genuine article? I have my doubts, but then affordability has always been more important than authenticity down Roman Road.
Affordable perhaps, but never quite desirable. Mary hoped to nudge the market upmarket by bringing in the moneyed local crowd brought to Bow by the Olympic factor, but I saw no sign of these people on my walk along the street. Everyone I passed could easily have been a character on EastEnders, economically speaking - there are no bankers or social media planners here. Instead I passed old ladies discussing debt, two friends bickering, gentlemen on mobility scooters, young families seeking bargains... just the sort of people who'd have been here before.
A team of market inspectors were working their way down the street with a clipboard. Kids clustered around "Mickey's Sweets, established 25 years" (in which case that definitely wasn't Mickey running it). A pair of small but angry dogs engaged in a yap-off across the central gangway. Justin Timberlake rang out from a transistor radio, or its modern equivalent. At a stall entitled "Perfumes Similar To" the proprietor had carefully stuck a printed notice over the word "Similar". And up another sideroad a concrete mixer reversed into the site where a new Tesco Metro is being built. Not even Mary can hold back that retail intrusion.
But there is one long-term change here, and that's the appearance of "street food". For those who aren't aware, that's artisan nourishment, one step up from the usual van serving burger and onions. When Mary brought these traders in last year I didn't think they'd last, I couldn't see local folk stumping up. But although a couple of stalls have vanished, a hardcore remains, mostly down the western end by The Albert pub. SaintSugar have breads and pastries, giant coloured meringues and pains au chocolat, although they're not selling like hot cakes. Here too are Original Fry Up Material, a pair of entrepreneurs with a converted ice cream van who'll fry you breakfast in a muffin smeared with "secret sauce". I'm not usually one for such extravagances, but my takeaway chunkymeattreat was delicious. Watch out for OFM on TV tonight (apparently Mary's crew followed them around for a day to see how their homemade sausagemeat was put together), and at various other London locations (including Brick Lane on Sundays).
I spotted Mary at the weekend, not in downtown Bow but in Maida Vale where she lives. She was out with the family (other half, baby son, dog) at the Canalway Cavalcade, perusing the stalls above Little Venice basin. It was good to see an entrepreneurial expert taking appropriate interest in retail opportunities in her own neighbourhood. Whether she'll have a long term effect on mine is yet to be seen, but let's hope tonight's TV programme isn't already over-optimistically out of date.