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Five days of night

Smog envelopes London . The news vendor at Charing Cross Station is seen here with smog mask selling his papers .

A view from the Strand of London’s Trafalgar Square shrouded in smog

In 1954 Frankie Howerd was hot stuff. He’d been on the wireless as the star of ‘Variety Bandbox’ ever since the end of the war when he was approached by the director Val Guest to make a film in which he’d have the leading role. Despite Howerd’s initial reluctance to grace the big screen, the upshot of Guest’s overtures was ‘The Runaway Bus’, also starring Margaret Rutherford, Petula Clark and the man who later played Charlie Hungerford in ‘Bergerac’. Howerd played Percy Lamb, a coach driver tasked with taking a small group of passengers from a fog-bound Heathrow airport to Blackbushe airfield in Hampshire, where the higher ground meant the fog wasn’t as thick and so there was more chance of aircraft taking off. A bullion robbery and a deserted village add crime and suspense to the comedy but it’s not, in truth, a particularly great film. A low-budget cash-in on the man of the moment, ‘The Runaway Bus’ showcases Howerd’s familiar range of world-weary eye-rolling and haughty faux indignation but it’s certainly no classic.

The screen presence that makes ‘The Runaway Bus’ relevant to this story is the fog. It’s there throughout the film, a constant, silent presence and the raison d’être of the entire plot (such as it is). For someone who arrived long after the fifties, ‘The Runaway Bus’ provides for me a fascinating glimpse of just how different the fog was back then. In the early scenes we see Howerd groping his way along walls until he stumbles upon his vehicle, and when he sets off into the gloom he becomes hopelessly lost, barely able to see the road in front of him. Today ‘The Runaway Bus’ works better as a historical weather document than a comedy thriller: from it we can see that back then fog really was quite something.

A newspaper seller and commuter outside Charing Cross station during the Great Smog of December 1952

The Great Smog

The cloying fog that clung to London in December 1952 left more than sticky skin and a salty taste on the tongue. Investigations in its immediate aftermath estimated that the Great Smog was responsible for the deaths of around 4,000 people, while a 2004 investigation raised that figure threefold, with 100,000 more falling ill as a result of the smog. An anticyclone and a complete absence of wind had combined to leave dust and chemicals hanging over the city between 5th and 9th December. There’d been a particularly cold spell at the start of the month, which meant Londoners were burning more coal than usual to keep warm. Domestic coal back then was not of the highest quality – Britain needed to export the good stuff to keep the national coffers topped up. It was dusty and sulphurous, causing a yellow-grey smoke to vomit from domestic chimneys, along with that belched by power stations and trains. The coal smoke mixed with other chemical fumes from factories and found itself hemmed in by a temperature inversion, when instead of the temperature dropping the higher you went, the warmer air sat on top of colder air. This stopped the pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere and, with the stillness of the air, left a dirty yellow fog hanging over the city and its environs for five freezing, choking days.

“People walked the streets with handkerchiefs over their noses; the police wore masks as they directed the snail’s pace traffic as best they could”

London was used to heavy fogs and smogs. Centuries of coal burning and then, in Victorian times, the growth of industry, had meant that ‘pea-soupers’ or ‘London particulars’ were part of the capital’s folklore, as evidenced in the novels of Dickens (the opening of ‘Bleak House’ contains the best evocation of fog in literary history), Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. As far back as Edward I reservations had been expressed about the effects of so many people burning coal in such close proximity, something that had concerned Elizabeth I too. In 1661 John Evelyn suggested to Charles II and Parliament that something needed to be done about the “catharrs, phthisicks, coughs and consumptions which rage more in this one city than in the whole earth besides”, but nothing was ever done and the fogs got thicker, smellier and more dangerous. A smog of 1901 was so thick that people in the East End of London marvelled that they couldn’t see their own feet, and my mother recalls coming within a single footstep of going face first into a pond while walking to school across Blackheath in a 1947 pea-souper.

The 1952 smog, however, was like nothing else. Football matches and greyhound meetings were cancelled, people groped their way along the streets, traffic was at a standstill and animals asphyxiated at Smithfield market. A performance of ‘La Traviata’ at Sadler’s Wells had to be abandoned before the interval as a large proportion of the audience couldn’t see the stage for the sickly yellow haze. There were several accounts of blind people in London helping the sighted to get home: one man in Notting Hill regularly led people to their homes from the Tube station. Hospitals were overwhelmed with people complaining of respiratory problems, and when funeral directors began to run short of coffins it became clear that this was no ordinary weather event.

People walked the streets with handkerchiefs over their noses; the police wore masks as they directed the snail’s pace traffic as best they could. But it wasn’t on the streets that the smog did its worst, it was in the freezing terraced homes of the old and infirm, where the noxious fog found its way in through draughty window frames and badly fitted doors, a poisonous sulphuric miasma that homed in on the inhabitants, inflaming their lungs and literally suffocating them in their beds and their armchairs. They’d survived the bombs of the war only to succumb breathlessly and slowly to a fog that hid a slow, wheezing death in its choking haze.

Top: ‘The Runaway Bus’ poster. Above: A bus attempts to navigate the fog

The Clean Air Act of 1956 saw that the London air would be gradually cleansed of its worse pollution excesses, although remarkably the Conservative government had reservations about its introduction. Harold Macmillan, chancellor of the exchequer at the time, twice ruled out legislation before the Act was passed on the grounds that “an enormous number of broad economic considerations have to be taken into account”. However, it was soon realised that the cost of implementing smokeless zones was minuscule compared to the wider financial losses the smogs were causing, and the Bill finally went through Parliament. The effects were not instant – the Lewisham rail crash the following year, which killed 87 people, happened in thick smog – but gradually improvements could be discerned and by the ’60s London fogs were largely just that: fog, without the poisonous elements that turned it brown and yellow and caused polished silver to turn black on mantelpieces.

So when Frankie Howerd was climbing signposts  and feeling his way along walls it was no mere hamming  for the camera: to the cinemagoer of 1954 it was all perfectly plausible, memories fresh from the realities of a long December weekend that made them grateful the fog was just on the screen rather than hanging there in front of it.

Charlie Connelly is the author of ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, published by Little, Brown

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