Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Smoke Menace, The (1937)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Britain in the 1930s, and the economic climate is passing out of depression into a new prosperity as evidenced by images of men pouring into a factory; white molten steel dipped in a raging furnace; a newly-built ship sliding down a slipway and the workings of a thriving aircraft plant. Since Victorian times, the commentary informs, coal has been behind heavy industry, but the smoke we see billowing from chimneys should no longer be regarded as a symbol of prosperity. We can no longer ignore the perilous effects of burning raw coal on public health, the economy and architecture. Housewives and industry managers alike are urged to convert to cleaner forms of fuel.

Window cleaners, chimney sweeps, laundry workers and building restorers struggle to combat soot, but their battle is never-ending. Buildings are not only discoloured, but permanently damaged by the 75,000 tons of soot that falls annually on London, causing £60-80 million of damage. Children deprived of sunlight as a result of the smoke haze suffer deficiencies in Vitamin D, making them prone to rickets. Young patients are shown undergoing ultra-violet treatment at the Middlesex Hospital Sunray Clinic. High smoke levels also increases the risk of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases, and the death toll doubles during the winter in some Northern cities. It also creates hazardous conditions for air, road and rail transport. A bi-plane takes off in fog and a bus crawls along a London street due to low visibility.

The commentary advocates processed coal as the solution to the smoke menace. Striking at the root of the problem is the gas industry's method of breaking down coal into its respective components: gas, coke and valuable chemical side products, such as coal tar, ammonia sulphate and benzol. The resultant smokeless fuels and oil bring about a cleaner atmosphere and eliminates waste, but the country has been slow to convert. Smoke still billows from domestic and industrial chimneys. The British Commercial Gas Council appeals to the ordinary citizen, the Ministry of Health, local authorities, architects and industry managers to help 'create a vision of a smokeless country'.