The 25th Anniversary of Alice A Fight for Life
Not many TV programs make an impact like Alice A Fight For Life. In the days following its transmission on ITV (July 20, 1982), this documentary exposé on the workings of the asbestos industry saw £60 million knocked off asbestos companies' share prices, headlines in national newspapers, hundreds of calls and letters of support to Yorkshire Television, and the setting up of a government enquiry, the result of which was the halving of the permitted levels of asbestos dust in factories across the UK.
Today, factual programs usually mean Wife Swap and Celebrity Love Island but in 1982 when the program was transmitted Yorkshire Television had a thriving documentary department which gave producers the time, the money and the support to go out and make programs like Alice. And show it to huge audiences on ITV in prime time.
Producer John Willis was already an award winning investigative documentary maker, Researchers James Cutler and Peter Moore were destined for major television careers. Together, they blew the industry apart reporting on the horrendous dust levels within the factories. They collected powerful scientific evidence and reported on the dreadful secrecy and duplicity of the asbestos industry. Twenty five years ago there was no public awareness of these things.
But ultimately it was the human stories that made Alice so powerful, the testimonies of the victims, some with awfully wasted bodies telling us their stories, some who had only fleeting contact with asbestos. The most powerful and heart rending of all was the story of Alice Jefferson, the Alice of the title.
Alice had worked at Acre Mill, Hebden Bridge for just three months when she was 17 years old. Thirty years later she was diagnosed with mesothelioma and given only six months to live. During the film we saw Alice's condition deteriorate as the disease progressed, and we saw her rage against the injustice and tragedy of it all, and we wept for her husband, her daughter Patsy aged five, her son Paul aged 15, and for Alice herself.
I worked as a production assistant on Alice and it was a harrowing and sometimes frightening experience. We traveled to Asbestos in Quebec the town where raw asbestos was dug out of a huge open cast mine. We visited an asbestos cement factory near Cambridge as fork lift trucks transported dusty sheets of asbestos material around the site as we filmed. We traveled across the United States to New York and the World Trade Center that was full of asbestos; to Mount Sinai Hospital to interview the impressive Dr. Irving Selikoff; to Baltimore to talk to author and researcher Barry Castleman and to Washington for the plain speaking personal injury lawyer Ron Motley. And throughout our trip there were the harrowing testimonies of the victims. We listened to hundreds of hours of interview, we got to know the families, we shared drinks and barbecues with them, and we shared with them our anger at the utter futility of it all. Lives decimated by an industry that lied, covered up and failed to face up to its responsibilities.
It was years later, in 1988 when I was a producer myself and making a documentary about the death toll around Turner and Newall's Armley factory, that I came across thousands of company documents belonging to T & N. It was chilling to read among other things that they had employed a private detective to report on the Yorkshire TV researchers and, I have to admit, heartening to read of their utter panic following the transmission of Alice.
This program Too Close to Home, told the story of how J.W. Roberts, a subsidiary of Turner and Newall, systematically pumped asbestos dust into the streets of Armley near Leeds contaminating the homes and the people who lived round about. One of those was June Hancock a young girl who grew up in Armley and played in the streets around the factory, although June had never worked at the factory but in 1994 was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The program built up a dossier of deaths among people who grew up near the factory who many years later contracted mesothelioma. It would lead June Hancock to a landmark victory in the high court for compensation for a mesothelioma sufferer who had never worked in the industry. June died ten years ago on 19th July 1997 but her memory lives on in the June Hancock Mesothelioma Memorial Research Fund.
It is ten years since June died and twenty five years since Alice was transmitted, two important landmarks in the sorry story of the asbestos industry. Alice's daughter Patsy of whom she talks so fondly in the film, is 30 now. She is asking for a memorial at the Acre Mill site so that those who come after do not forget Alice and all the other workers who died and are dying still. We cannot afford to stop remembering.
On this anniversary of the documentary in which her mother Alice shone so brightly, there are many of us who will not stop remembering, for Alice stands not for one but for all, and the shameful story of the asbestos industry. Alice's fight for life lives on.1
July 18, 2007