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4 | Institutions and the public</br>Frame from the film Housing problems, 1935

Housing problems - 2002

A film for urban renewal

Leonardo Ciacci

Made by Arthur Elton and Edgard Anstey in 1935 for the British Commercial Gas Association. Housing Problems was produced to draw attention to the state housing programmes. According to Erik Barnouw, the author of Documentary. A history of non-fiction film (1993), it was Grierson, one of the more renowned English documentary makers, who convinced the gas company of the importance of making the film: '…the demolition of derelict slums and their replacement by governement-finacing housing - a key demand of the socialist Labour party - would inevitably bring modernization and increased use of gas. Thus the company financed a film of blunt and moving protest'.


Housing problems
London, 1935

Production Arthur Elton, E.H. Anstey, for the B.C.G.A.
Photography John Taylor
Recording York Scarlett
Technical information 15 minutes, b/n, sound
The film is at the British Film Archive (London)
© British Film Archive (London)
Detail sheet by Leonardo Ciacci
Watch the film online | Complete version
Housing problems


The film has the tone of a modern report in which the voice of the narrator is interwoven with that of Councillor Lorder, chairman of the Stepney Housing Committee, and the people interviewed inside their slum houses: '…This film is going to introduce to us some of the people really concerned…'. Divided into three sections, the documentary first analytically describes conditions in the slums to be demolished, then shows the designs, models and proposed town planning schemes for new buildings, before ending with images of the new life the families will have in the new estates. What the film does not mention explicitly is the radical transformation of the residential models, from single, terraced houses with the traditional front door onto the street into flats in multi-storey buildings.

This political and social problem is hidden beneath the other more visible one of the desperate conditions in the old houses: 'Many of the houses are so old that they have to be shored up to prevent them falling down altogether. … Many houses have not got water laid on;… This lavatory and sink has to do for four families'. Of those interviewed, Mrs Hill is the one who seems least resigned: 'This house is getting on my nerves. We're shored up in every room. We've a staircase that you can't walk up it unless you turn you… one leg you want longer than the other. … We went to see the new houses, and they're lovely. But here, it gets on your nerves, for everything's filthy: dirty, filthy walls, and the vermin in the walls is wicked. I'll tell you, we're fed up'.


The film now shows the designs for the future: '… a model of a block of flats prepared by the British Steelwork Association, … All the parts of the building are standard:… Each flat has a back to back range for coal or coke, a gas griller, and a gas plug by every fireplace… The gas industry has designed suitable appliances … especially to meet the needs of slum clearance schemes'.


The Quarry Hill Estate in Leeds, opened in 1938 and demolished in 1978, is a good example to show. In addition to the flats and the many open spaces, it provided a medical centre, a shopping centre and all kinds of amenities.
In the new estates community life will be lived according to new 'condominium' rules, well-described by one of the custodians: 'We have to sweep the stairs daily, … sweep up the courtyards and pick up litter on lawns. This … goes on to twelve o'clock at night, when (it is necessary to) see that no music or any noise is being making on the estate, for the quietness of the tenants'. Councillor Lorder appears confident. '…if you provide people from the slums with decent homes, they quickly respond to the improved conditions and keep their homes clean and tidy'. Interviewing the inhabitants directly on the quality of their new homes, the film brings in those same people to whom the message is actually directed. The tool of propaganda thus becomes a means of information.

After Housing Problems, the Ministry of Public Health commissioned Pathé Films to make The Great Crusade: the Story of a Million Homes, in 1936, on the demolition and replacement of the slums. The following year Grierson made The Smoke Menace (1937), again for the gas company, on the distribution of gas and electricity for home use. Kensal House, by Frank Sainsbury, was also made in 1937 looking at the project by the architect Maxwell Fry for reclamation of the old gasometer site in London, rebuilt with blocks of flats. Finally, Paul Rotha's film entitled New Worlds for Old, also on new housing, was made in 1938. Regarding the people featured in Housing Problems, all those who moved to the new flats seem to be satisfied. Mrs Reddington is happy: 'Now I've got a nice little place of my own. Three bedrooms, a lovely scullery, a living room and a bathroom. The bathroom's the best of all: what we wanted. Away from those buildings'. And Councillor Lorder is also satisfied: '…there is reason to hope that within the next ten years, considerable strides will be made towards removing the worst slums'.