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Smoke Menace, The (1937)

Courtesy of Transco

Main image of Smoke Menace, The (1937)
35mm, 14 min, black & white
Directed byJohn Taylor
Production CompanyRealist Film Unit
Produced byJohn Grierson

Commentator: Peter Hine

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Warns of the harm done to the atmosphere by burning coal.

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Air currents, coal scuttles, chimney sweeps and dense, yellow fog... Winter smog, a deadly concoction of chimney smoke, sulphur dioxide and winter fog, had been casting a shadow over London since the 17th century. However, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century dramatically exacerbated the problem, and by the time this film was made in the 1930s, the effect of unregulated pollution on public health and the environment was seriously taking its toll.

In its treatment of this complex problem, The Smoke Menace neatly divides into two parts. The first outlines in detail the causes of smog, combining deftly photographed and edited montages of industrial and domestic usage of untreated coal, punctuated by the cautionary commentary. Our perception of images of housewives feeding their blazing hearths, skylines defined by smoke-spewing chimneys, molten steel pouring from the furnace and other industrial motifs, such as a thriving Clyde shipyard, is steered by assertions such as 'Where there's muck there's losing money'.

The second part proposes a solution in the form of the smokeless fuel and oil processed by the gas industry, and the appeal to stop burning raw coal is made forceful and fully convincing by a mosaic of visual and verbal explanation.

The Coal Smoke Abatement Society (CSAS), which had been set up in 1898 by London based artist Sir William Blake Richmond, was instrumental in bringing about the 1926 Public Health Smoke Abatement Act, but the conversion to cleaner fuels was unfortunately a very gradual one and the escalation in popularity of the motor vehicle introduced a new enemy to contend with.

By the mid-20th century, the insidious alliance of pollution and weather culminated in the deadly 'Great Smog' of 1952, which claimed the lives of around 4000 Londoners and prompted a change in the way we relate to the air around us. The government's response was to legislate smoke controlled areas with the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1956.

Katy McGahan

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Video Clips
1. The coal industry (1:07)
2. The dirt trades (2:20)
3. A grave menace (2:56)
Grierson, John (1898-1972)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)
Wright, Basil (1907-1987)