Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Housing Problems (1935)

Courtesy of Transco National Gas Archive

Main image of Housing Problems (1935)
35mm, black and white, 13 mins
ProductionArthur Elton
 E.H. Anstey
Production CompanyBritish Commercial Gas Association
PhotographyJohn Taylor
RecordistYork Scarlett

How local councils are tackling the problem of slum clearance. New housing schemes are shown to be working, and cottage estates and blocks of flats are seen being constructed.

Show full synopsis

Housing Problems is both a propaganda piece and a document of optimism. With its iconic image of new flats rising behind an old row of slum terraces in Stepney, it shows what has been done to improve living conditions by the most 'enlightened' local authorities and planners, and provides an exhortation to others to follow suit. Rather than merely asserting the necessity of new housing, it uses the voices and stories of working class men and women to demonstrate the slums' dreadful conditions, and the benefit of the new estates.

Its method - ordinary people talking straight to the camera about their lives - was an innovation in documentary, though to a modern viewer the rehearsed words sound stilted. A more serious note of condescension might be gathered when the narrator tells us that slum-dwellers 'quickly respond' to their improved living conditions by becoming more hygienic themselves.

With hindsight, it might be easy to see faith in planned housing as the solution to social problems as naïve. Leeds' Quarry Road Estate, displayed as an exemplary piece of planning, was never fully completed; many of the vaunted amenities were never added to the basic housing, and the whole estate was demolished in 1978. Nevertheless, the full horror of the slums is brought home, as the badly-housed talk about the deaths of their children and daily encounters with vermin, and the camera pans around houses with crooked stairs, blown plaster and collapsed roofs.

Finally, there's a chilling pathos in the filmmakers' hope that in the next ten years the worst of the slums would have been cleared. By 1945, the Luftwaffe had indiscriminately destroyed large areas of working-class housing, and Britain faced a new and rather more desperate housing problem.

Danny Birchall

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The problem of the slum (1:44)
2. Mr Norwood's story (0:47)
3. Proposals for reconstruction (2:09)
4. Rehousing (1:18)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Building Homes (1950)
Enough to Eat? (1936)
Kensington Calling (1930)
LCC Housing Bonds (1920)
Not a Penny on the Rents (1968)
Paradox City (1934)
Who Cares (1971)
Workers and Jobs (1935)
Block, The (1972)
Cathy Come Home (1966)
Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)
Elton, Sir Arthur (1906-1973)
Political Film