Circulating Now welcomes guest Angela Saward, Research Development Specialist (Moving Image and Sound) at Wellcome Collection, London, to discuss the British public health film It Takes Your Breath Away, which documents the history and environmental impact of air pollution, now on Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM.
Dr. Mary Catterall (1922–2015), doctor and sculptor, script and medical adviser to the film, It Takes Your Breath Away, became concerned with lung health when she was appointed Senior Registrar in Respiratory Medicine at Leeds General Infirmary, England in 1960. The film won a Silver Medal at the British Medical Association annual film competition in 1964, which welcomed films from professional and amateur filmmakers, only specifying that medical excellence was paramount. It is a work of “hidden” cinema: it was devised specifically for professional medical audiences, in this case healthcare personnel, and was not intended to be distributed to the wider public. This essay looks at the backstory to the film and how Catterall became involved both personally and professionally by exploring her archives, held at Wellcome Collection where she deposited them in 2009, as well as other library and archival sources. The essay contributes to the growing interest and discourse around environmental activism in the 1960s across both sides of the Atlantic. Air pollution has historically taken a significant toll on health and mortality; at the time the film was made, it was implicated in 30,000 deaths in the UK. Today, comparisons can be made with COVID-19 when once again air pollution has become highly newsworthy: at the time of writing there is growing evidence that deaths through complications from COVID-19 have a direct causal relationship to exposure to harmful air particulates.
The Long Shadow of the Industrial Revolution
In Northern cities in the United Kingdom, the legacy of migration, rapid urbanisation, and the attendant problems of pollution, which started with the Industrial Revolution, continued to have a detrimental impact centuries later. It Takes Your Breath Away references this legacy. It begins with opening credits of photographic still images of scenes showing various high-angle views of rooftops and chimneys from residential and industrial settings. The music is doom-laden and discordant. The title of the film, It Takes Your Breath Away, is at odds with the images: the received use of this phrase is “to astonish or amaze,” so the choice is immediately unsettling. Seven of the 13-minute running time is taken up with contextualising visual material on the polluted urban environment coupled with a powerful narration, scripted by Catterall and voiced by Bryan Martin. The film’s position regarding pollution is clear: air pollution is a human problem (the subtitle to the film). The language is loaded; it refers to the influence of the Industrial Revolution on humankind by remarking, “mechanism spread like a rat.”
The film contrasts the “black towns” of the industrial North of England where smoke and dirt, chemicals, soot and corrosive grime particles had damaged the urban environment in contrast to the newly planned Clean Air Zones, where gleamingly clean buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London were granted extensive and costly restoration.
The clearly visible damage to the built environment is common in films on this subject, largely due to the readily quantifiable economic costs associated with cleaning up the problem. However, the film also makes reference to the social injustice of improving the environment in some areas such as the centre of London (perhaps for the benefit of the few) to the detriment of mixed industrial/residential zones that already suffered under social and economic pressures, where factories and tenements historically were co-located….
To read the full essay and to see the film go to NLM’s Medicine on Screen, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.
Learn more about NLM collections documenting environmental health concerns in “Darkening Day: Air Pollution Films and Environmental Awareness, 1960–1972” on Medicine on Screen and in Fifty Years Ago: The Darkening Day, an online exhibition from the National Library of Medicine.
On September 9, 2021, Angela Saward and Sarah Eilers will give an NLM History Talk, “Peril in the Air: Pollution Activism on Film.” They will explore the intersection of filmmaking, government, and medicine as they not only respond to, but attempt to drive, a shift of the collective mind, the modern environmental movement. Vivid imagery and dramatic narration make clear the power of film to tell a story that words alone often do not. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about NLM History Talks on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.
Angela Saward has been working with audiovisual archives for many years, researching, licensing, and managing the curatorial lifecycle of audio, film, and video. Currently, she is Research Development Specialist (Moving Image and Sound), Wellcome Collection, London, working with Wellcome’s unique and distinctive collections across many formats, supporting colleagues and cross-cultural partners, with a special emphasis on the audiovisual. She serves on the Steering Group for London’s Screen Archives and is an active member of FOCAL and AMIA. She has a business master’s MA MTA and a first degree in English Literature.
Angela has collaborated with NLM staff for many years, presenting joint talks on NLM and Wellcome films that share thematic, stylistic, and other elements. Past topics include screening the body, medical travelogues, environmental foci, hidden collections.
Very interesting topic, it’s good that these kinds of films are made. We should be aware of the dangers that man brings upon himself by chasing the development of civilisation. I hope that today’s science will become more sensitive to the environment. For the time being, however, I see a bleak scenario for the future, in which clean air will become a good available to the privileged few…