In the early 1950s – and in fact for decades before, too – London was plagued by instances of thick fog, dubbed ‘pea soupers’.
Air quality got so bad in the capital that, in December 1952, the city was brought to a virtual standstill for four days as visibility was so poor.
According to contemporary newspaper reports, the fog meant cars could only proceed with a pedestrian in front guiding the way (see photo above), and it even seeped into buildings, disrupting theatres and businesses. Bus services were cancelled and police reported a spike in burglaries, attacks and robberies under the cover of the fog.
Subsequent investigations attributed at least 1,500 deaths to this fog, primarily through respiratory problems, but a 1954 report put the figure at around 4,000. It’s now believed that as many as 12,000 people died.
This article from All That’s Interesting has a good summary of the scientific investigation into the fog, which only yielded definitive results in 2017. YouTube has several videos about it, including this mini-documentary that summarises the 1952 fog.
Parliament passed the Clean Air Act in 1956, and attempts to clean up London’s air have been ongoing ever since. While the city rarely gets ‘pea soupers’ any more, it still suffers from poor air quality.
In December 1954, memories of the fatal fog of two years previous were triggered by a similarly thick fog across much of England. A report in the Belfast News-Letter from 16 December 1954 reported fog affecting Lancashire, Somerset, Nottinghamshire, and Kent as well as the capital.
In London, where the fog was the worst this winter, visibility dropped from 600 yards to less than 100 in 13 minutes. It was reported later that visibility was between 20 and 50 yards. Londoners formed human chains to struggle through the worst patches, which brought bad memories of the 1952 “killer blanket”. Cars trailed nose to tail, led by torch-carrying pedestrians. Some vehicles were abandoned and bus services came to a standstill. Aircraft were diverted from London Airport to Blackbushe, and outgoing services were brought to a standstill.
(from the Belfast News-Letter, 16 December 1954)
This all might seem a little depressing, but Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes took the opportunity to create some fun from it for the 13th episode of the Goon Show’s fifth series. ‘Forog’ was broadcast on 21 December 1954, as per page 24 of the Radio Times.
Young Ned Seagoon, walking the streets of London during a particularly thick 'pea-souper,' accidentally knocks over a Miss Setina Clutch. Her strange behaviour mystifies young Neddie until a chance meeting with Dr. Rheingold Fnutt puts him on the track of an underground terrorist organisation led by the reckless 'Overcoat Charlie' intent on wrecking the capital's commercial life by blanketing London with an artificial foreign fog that makes people think nothing but the best of each other. Professor Crun is called in by the government to find an antidote to Forog.
(from the Radio Times, page 24, issue 1623, published 17 December 1954)
Note that in the credits, Forog is listed as being played by a “Mr Pogson”. This refers to Edward ‘Poggy’ Pogson, saxophonist with the Wally Stott Orchestra who supplied Minnie Bannister’s instrumental forays. Credit to Tyler Adams at Goon Pod for spotting it.
Pogson also played the clarinet, and it is this that supplies a wonderfully sinister musical theme throughout the episode.
To the episode itself, and as usual it deviates somewhat from the RT’s synopsis. Ned Seagoon puts on his hat and coat and goes for a walk, only to find himself in a fog so thick that he has to walk in front of himself carrying a torch. Soon a long line of buses and cars are following him, until…
Minnie Bannister: Ooooooh oh really, please! Stop, ahh! […] Seagoon: Madam, perhaps I can direct you somewhere? Bannister: I'd better direct you, sir! Seagoon: Me? Haha, you, direct me? That's rich! That’s rich, that is indeed. Me that guides half London. What makes you think I'm lost? Bannister: You're in my kitchen!
The fog is bad news. Bluebottle gets lost on his way to the BBC, only for Seagoon to direct him straight into the river Thames. The fog is so thick the young boy scout can't see to tell whether he's drowning or not.
Fortunately, Seagoon has an idea to rid London of fog for good. He enters the House of Commons, where MPs are discussing the effects of the occurrence and the fact that it is costing the country millions of pounds a year. (“Well, stop buying it then!”)
Our hero is given a government grant and appointed Fog And Thick Smog Officer, or FATSO for short. And he is short, of course. As he begins his experiments, there is a knock on the door. It is the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, who has come down from his column in Trafalgar Square to persuade Seagoon to stop trying to rid London of fog.
Seagoon refuses, leading Nelson to take action. He sends messages to the statues of Achilles and Eros (aka Moriarty and Bluebottle), along with William Gladstone (Henry Crun) and Boadicea (Minnie Bannister).
Crun: It's me, Boady, it's Gladstone. I have some bad news for you! Bannister: It's not another student strike is it? After that thing they put on my head last year!
Major Bloodnok is persuaded to put a guard in place around Nelson’s Column, with the help of Seagoon’s clever use of a promise of £10 a week. Nelson still makes it through and confronts Seagoon again. This time Neddie arrests Nelson using stone handcuffs, with the help of Eccles – although Eccles informs the listeners that he can’t actually see who Seagoon is talking to.
Greenslade: Yesterday, a young government-sponsored scientist was helped down Nelson's Column where he had handcuffed himself to the statue of Nelson. In warning him, the magistrate said there was too much of this sort of thing going on. However, as this was Seagoon's first offence he was sentenced to three minutes of Ray Ellington.
It’s enough to drive anyone mad, and Seagoon certainly seems to be accelerating in that direction. He declares his experiments a success and enjoys the plaudits of a cheering crowd – that Eccles can’t see.
Soon, though, the fog is back. A desperate Seagoon analyses it again and declares it to be “foreign fog” that has been manufactured overseas and shipped in. Hence, ‘Forog’. Once more unto parliament dear Ned goes, but this time no one believes him and he finds himself being analysed by doctors.
Seagoon: Doctor, doctor, have they examined the forog? Moriarty: They have, it's turned out to be fog. Seagoon: It's not, it's not, I tell you! It's forog! Moriarty: Yes, yes, yes, take it easy now. Seagoon: Did you find Major Bloodnok? Moriarty: Yes, we have checked with the War Office records and found there is no such man of the name ever existed. Seagoon: What? But-but-but, go to my government-sponsored laboratory and you'll see his name in the visitors’ book! Moriarty: Yes, we checked with that address you gave us but there is no laboratory there. It is an old bomb site. Seagoon: [Gulps] But, honestly, there is a laboratory... There must be a laboratory! As true as my name is Ned Seagoon! Moriarty: Ah, that's another point. There is no such person as Ned Seagoon!
Series 5, Episode 13
Broadcast: 21 December 1954
Written by: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton