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OU on the BBC: James May's 20th Century - Big City, Bright Lights

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

Each day, 180,000 people move into a city somewhere on the planet. In Big City, Bright Lights, James sets out to discover how we’ve created this high-rise, 24/7 experiment in urban living.

James May Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

He heads for New York – to the top floors of the Woolworth building, once the tallest building in the world. It’s being renovated, but how strong is it? To find out he decides to drop a 1982 Mini 1000 onto a plate of skyscraper glass.

At the start of the 20th Century there was no national grid, no agreed system of voltage and James discovers that in 1922 there were 22 different plugs used across the country. Until a Geordie electricial engineer, Charles Merz, came up with a master plan:

"The Merz mantra was unprecedented. One nation. One voltage. One plug."

But there’s one light bulb James wants to find out about – one that was invented in the 20th century:

"There’s one form of light that radiates come-hither hues to all those who are looking for some action… This light tempts you to the dark side! You won’t see a neon sign on a Methodist church or a lending library. Some unwritten convention says neon is used to advertise illicit pleasures that happen late into the night…"

He meets master neon-bender Steve, as he attempts to make a neon sign for his favourite restaurant, his local kebab shop.

First broadcast: Tuesday 10 Jul 2007 on BBC TWO

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