This year, 2016, has been a great year for groundbreaking television series. In addition to HBO’s Westworld, which I analyzed in a video presentation, Netflix has brought us the historical drama The Crown, about the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The show is definitely worth watching for its own sake, but if you have an interest in environmental history, The Crown recently served up one of the most compelling dramatizations of an environmental disaster I’ve ever seen: an account of the Great Smog of London, which descended upon Britain’s capital city in December 1952, 64 years ago this week. I’ve had the Great Smog on my list of blog topics for a long time, and now with the intercession of The Crown I can discuss it in relation to this very compelling piece of recent TV drama.
The Great Smog was one of the most appalling disasters in recent history. London has always been known for its fog, especially in winter, and air pollution has been a problem since Roman times. On December 5, 1952, these two quirks of London’s climate and geography came together with devastating effect. The fog that settled over the city that cold morning seemed unusually thick and tinged with yellow. The very air, charged with particles of sulfur and other pollutants from factories and tailpipes, smelled foul. As traffic ground to a halt in the zero-visibility mess, ordinary people began to cough and get sick. Hospitals were soon flooded with patients suffering–some acutely–from respiratory distress. Many died, especially those with asthma or other preexisting conditions. After the weather changed and the fog lifted on December 9, authorities believed about 4,000 Londoners were dead. In fact the number was probably much higher. Recent scholarship indicates as many as 12,000 people died. That’s more than were killed in the horrific Bhopal gas release in India in 1984, and certainly ranks the 1952 London fog as one of the most lethal environmental disasters of modern times.
Here is the official trailer for the Netflix series The Crown.
Episode 4 of The Crown, “Act of God,” depicts the disaster not only in concrete terms, but also examines how it affected British politics and the monarchy. As the skies darkened and the air thickened that first week of December, the British government was slow to react to the widening public health crisis. In the show, Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), doing his second tour of 10 Downing Street, shrugs off the disaster as an “act of God.” But his political enemies, who think Churchill is too old and addled to serve effectively as the nation’s chief exec, start plotting to use the occasion of the Great Smog to set him up for a political fall. Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) believes they may have a point. But Churchill’s political acumen is not dulled by age, and he manages to turn the tables to use the disaster to cement his power–with the Queen’s unwitting help.
It’s not the details of the political-intrigue plot that fascinate me about The Crown’s depiction of the Great Fog, but the wonderful way in which it shows the disaster itself. The episode shows us the streets of London as they must have appeared during that horrible week: dim and hazy, the air yellow-orange, streets dark and unnavigable, all landmarks like Big Ben or Trafalgar Square becoming more theoretical than real in a murky landscape with few differentiating features. I also love how The Crown shows the disaster against the backdrop of a depressed, economically ravaged, down-and-out London that has barely begun to recover from the Second World War. Even Churchill’s secretary, who dies in a fog-related accident, lives in a squalid, run-down apartment, and the weight of Britain’s postwar malaise seems to hang heavily on her as well as the other characters. The Crown gets the miserable London of 1952 exactly right.
“AfterBuzz,” a YouTube show where viewers discuss shows they’ve just seen, tackles Episode 4 of The Crown. (Episode 3 is also included in the discussion).
There are also some truly wonderful and subtle touches that make this show really resonate. In one scene, Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), Elizabeth’s dying mother, reclines in bed smoking cigarettes. The air inside her bedroom is stagnant and hazy, and it’s not from her cigarette smoke. Elizabeth herself carries on as best she can, answering telephone calls and flitting about Buckingham Palace, but there’s an edgy kind of anxiety about her movements; behind the stoic facade of royalty she knows London is facing an unprecedented calamity. The episode’s director Julian Jarrold and writer Peter Morgan obviously took considerable care in recreating this vanished world. The effect is devastating, and makes one think about the implications of environmental pollution.
In real life the Great Smog focused Britain’s, and the world’s, attention on the issue of air pollution. Several acts of clean air legislation wound their way through Parliament in the 1950s, and even Conservative governments like Churchill’s began to realize that the environment was a potent issue that they could ignore only at their peril. The Great Smog has had effects down to the present day. Environmental scientists are still studying it, and in fact Gizmodo recently reported some new scientific work on the exact environmental causes of the disaster. As similar air pollution crises have wracked China, especially Beijing, with increasing frequency in the 2000s and 2010s, Chinese officials have begun to look at the Great Smog as a grim predictor of just how bad things could get if they don’t take action. Air quality is a major issue all around the world, and it’s only going to get worse as the effects of climate change–the worst manmade disaster of all–pinch all societies more deeply than ever before.
The terrible smog of 1952 brought London to a standstill. This was what Nelson’s column looked like in the midst of the disaster.
Environmental history is crucial to our understanding not just of the past, but our present and future. My hat–no pun intended–is off to the producers of The Crown for foregrounding environmental history so prominently and beautifully in their series. If you haven’t seen The Crown, I highly recommend it.