The fourth episode of new Netflix series The Crown depicts a real-life catastrophe, the so-called “Great Smog” or “Great Pea Soup” that descended on London in December 1952 and caused chaos and death for several days.
But how accurate was the series’ depiction of the cataclysmic event? Was Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) really so blasé about the dangers? And how did the series producers recreate it?
A period of cold weather in London, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, led to pollution collecting in the streets and forming a thick layer of smog across the city. As depicted in the series, most of these pollutants came from the burning of coal, which was used to heat homes and power factories.
The fog descended on Friday 5th December, and was reported as so thick that you couldn’t see the other side of the street you were walking on, or even your own feet in parts of one East London area.
Unrest and death
Kate Phillips (left) as Venetia Scott
As depicted in the series the fog caused difficulty in London, with many services cancelled including ambulances, meaning people had to walk themselves to hospitals.
There was also an uptick in crime during the smog, with more than 100 smash-and-grab raids across the city and one murder where a 16-year-old girl was stabbed in the back.
But some of the other more dramatic details in the episode are somewhat unlikely. The death of Churchill’s secretary Venetia Scott (herself fictional) in the series is one such example, as eventually all public transport bar the London Underground was closed due to poor visibility and so her death by bus crash would have been unlikely. Most deaths (see below) were actually caused by respiratory problems.
As London was used to thick fogs there was reportedly little panic about the situation, and the scenes of chaos in hospitals in The Crown are somewhat exaggerated – a Doctor living at the time has said that “there was no sense of drama or emergency,” and that they only realized what a disaster it was after the fact when the mortality rates were revealed.
The official number of dead after the fog lifted on December 9th was 4,000, though more recent reports (taking into account those who died after it lifted among other factors) rank the death toll at closer to 12,000. The majority of deaths caused during the fog were actually caused by exacerbation of existing respiratory complaints, or people with weaker constitutions like the young or elderly.
Reaction by Winston Churchill
The plot of The Crown episode 4 depicts Churchill as uninterested in the fog, much to the chagrin of his ministers and new Queen and to the detriment of the country. It also shows Labour leader Clement Atlee being briefed about the crisis before it unfolds, and using it to his political advantage.
But in actuality, there’s little evidence for any of these dramatic interpretations, with most newspaper reports from the time mainly focusing on the effects of the fog itself and not the politicians in charge. There’s also little to suggest that the government would have anticipated the strength of the fog beforehand, or been expected to.
The crisis ended up influencing a great rethink of the dangers of air pollution, with environmental legislation like the City of London (Various Powers) act of 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 eventually leading to significant improvements in air quality.
Another similar smog event, though less severe, took place in early December 1962.
And finally – how The Great Smog was brought back in 2016
When recreating the historical crisis, the makers of The Crown did something a little unusual. Usually, productions would use CGI and special effects to create fog in large spaces, but the programme-makers decided they wanted to take a more realistic tack.
“We had to get a great, huge warehouse and fill it full of fog to create the great pea soup of 1952,” series director Stephen Daldry (who directed the first two episodes of the series, above) told the magazine. “We did it for real — CG didn’t look good enough for us.”