The Dust At Acre Mill (1971)
A quick scan of the attached Socialist Worker article published in 1971 to coincide with the broadcast of this World In Action special gives an angry taste of what it was about:
"Slaughterhouse. Cape Asbestos deliberately sacrificed lives in the quest for high profits."
Nearly 40 years later, in May 2009, the Frontline Club screened the original film:
'Regarded as a classic edition of the Granada Television current affairs series World in Action, The Dust at Acre Mill, transmitted on 28 June 1971, was the first programme to bring the lethal dangers of ill-protected contact with asbestos to the attention of the general public.
Combining simple reconstruction with the testimony of former workers in the asbestos industry, it was a landmark in the treatment of health and safety at work.
The production team of Richard Creasey, who conducted the investigation, Stephen Clarke, who produced, and John Sheppard, who directed, will be there to answer questions.'
This 30 minute documentary, centered around Acre Mill, an outwardly respected asbestos factory in Hebdon Bridge, Yorkshire. My breakthrough came late on my first day’s work on this World In Action project.
'World In Action' was Granada Television’s top current affairs series. I suspect I had been allocated to it because the powers that be at Granada felt a spell on a hard hitting current affairs would do me good. For the last three years I’d worked as a researcher in the USA and India on just four documentaries, each of which took six to twelve months to make.
One, of only three, 'World In Action' investigators had proposed Acre Mill at the Monday programme meeting but, instead of being given it, was sent to cover the Rhodesia Settlements talks on HMS Fearless in 1968.
I was chosen to fill in for him and told to read up everything I could by the end of the week. As a slow reader, dyslexia wasn’t understood in those days, I realised this wouldn’t get me, or my World In Action colleagues, anywhere, so that evening I drove to Hebdon Bridge, about an hour's drive from Granada Television’s studios in Manchester.
A storm blew up as I switched off the engine, turned out the car headlights and stared through the driving rain at the silhouette of the red brick factory.
A dim light appeared from the opening front door of what I had presumed had been a deserted cottage. A man with torch approached and asked what I was doing? Heart racing I waved in the direction of the factory. "Trying to work out what's been going on behind those walls."
“It's a death mill,” wheezed the stranger. “I've been struck down by it like everyone else". He urged me out of the car and led me to a hole in the Acre Mill wall.
"Have a look, but mind out for security", he said pointing to a pile of soaked, porous hessian sacks all 'leaking' blue asbestos. I grabbed one, heartedly thanked the stranger, sprinted back to my rental car, threw the soggy sack into the trunk, and sped back to the World In Action offices in Manchester. The sack was rushed to a lab and provided conclusive proof that Cape Asbestos had broken the 1931 Asbestos regulations.
Over the weeks that followed my most valuable informant was a former manager at Acre Mill who had been diagnosed, like so many of his employees including the helpful stranger, with Mesothelioma.
As rumor spread about the strength of the finished programme Denis Forman, Granada Television’s esteemed Managing Director, became so concerned about the potential repercussions from the litigious legal chiefs at Cape Asbestos that he demanded a replacement programme was put on standby and employed Lord Goodman QC to 'grill' me on the Saturday before the scheduled Monday transmission.
'The Dust At Acre Mill' went out on schedule. Not long after my informant had died.