“Mum Says It’s Alright As Long As I’m Careful”: British Public Information Films

Exhibit / May 16, 2018

Object Name: British Public Information Films
Maker and Year: The Central Office of Information, 1960s-1980s
Object Type: Public information films
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Designed to educate the country’s public in virtuous behaviors and warn them of the dangers they might encounter in everyday life, Public Information Films, or “PIFs,” were broadcast on British national television throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, and were one of the tools successive post-war UK governments employed to educate the populace in civic comportment. They were produced by the COI—the Central Office of Information, a government communications organ tasked with commissioning government advertising and publicity campaigns. Initially appearing before the main feature in cinemas, PIFs shifted to television as sets began to appear in increasing numbers of British homes; the COI offered its PIFs free of charge to broadcasters, who used them to fill gaps in the schedule and unsold advertising slots. Later still, the appearance of video recorders meant that PIFs could also be shown in schools as required; many of the films (including this one, warning of the dangers of talking to strangers) featured a police officer to validate the film’s message.

The immense loss of life caused by the First World War—which left the country dotted with a network of monuments to the dead—cast a shadow over British culture that persisted throughout the rest of the century, despite the attempts of the establishment to jolly the population along—which characterized the Second World War. The echoes of those two episodes of mass violence continued to reverberate in toys, comics, television series, and films aimed at children, all of which often seemed preoccupied with death, fear, the supernatural, and the uncanny. Naturally, these themes were also present in the PIFs, which evoked a world of constant lurking threat where the most innocuous situation—from changing a light bulb to riding an escalator to running to catch a bus—could evolve into tragedy in the blink of an eye. In the world of the Public Information Film, polishing a floor could be as dangerous as “(setting) a mantrap,” beaches were strewn with shards of glass, rhetorical questions inevitably invited blood-chilling answers, and foolhardy children intent on retrieving lost toys risked being blasted to charcoal by 66,000 volts of British electricity.

The films tackled a mind-boggling array of possible risks. Some—concerning raising awareness of motorcyclists on the road, warning of the risks of mixing cross-ply and radial tyres and low-hanging “flexes,” instructing them how to tackle that most British of dangers, the chip pan fire—targeted adults. Others, like the long-running Green Cross Code series, were aimed at children. Most, however, seemed intent on terrifying both, and it is this quality that earned them an enduring place in the collective British imagination. Though their mood was occasionally jocular, more often than not the tone was ominous, beginning with a voiceover intoning a variation on “If you’re (doing activity), you could be in danger,” as in this PIF for tractor digger attachments. Perhaps most disconcerting of all were the films that began light-heartedly, only to evolve into something more upsetting, like this film warning against the hazards of stopping on motorway hard-shoulders. PIFs were often loaded with pop-culture ephemera: this one stars Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member Neil Innes—whose “Death Cab for Cutie” was used in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour—and Michele Dotrice, who had starred in The Blood on Satan’s Claw and And Soon the Darkness (and at this point was better-known to British audiences as Betty, the long-suffering wife of Frank Spencer in sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em). It ends with what would come to be a standard image: a freeze-frame of the terrified face of a person as he or she realizes—too late!—the deadly consequences of their foolish behavior.

Given the nature of their mission, this focus on the worrisome and frightening side of life was perhaps inevitable, given the PIFs’ need to communicate life-or-death messages in concise ways that would penetrate viewers’ indifference. Even so, the approach they took sometimes seemed inexplicably brutal, with the techniques and language used to deliver their messages often closer to that of horror films than anything resembling institutional communication. And as they were produced by the government, the COI’s films were exempt from the censorship of the BBFC, Britain’s film classification body, meaning that directors and producers had a free hand to indulge their scare tactics.

In a country of timber-frame houses, shoddy construction, bad cabling, the British habit of plugging dozens of appliances into the same socket, widespread smoking, and the burgeoning use of highly-flammable artificial fibers, it’s no surprise that fire and its prevention were a recurring theme, with special attention reserved for the risks of allowing children to use matches—then ubiquitous in all British households. In this harrowing 1974 PIF titled “Searching,” the anguished POV of the camera roves through the remains of a burnt-out house. As it moves, we hear labored breathing and names being cried out—Jimmy, Nancy, Peter, Mummy, Daddy—as the pounding of the heartbeat on the soundtrack grows louder. Whose POV is this? A survivor of the fire, or the ghost of one of the victims? The doom-laden atmosphere seems to imply the latter, but the film supplies no answers.

“Searching” was the work of London-born filmmaker John Krish. The child of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe, Krish was widely acclaimed as one of Britain’s greatest documentary directors, producing award-winning documentaries and drama-docs, often funded by government, trade unions, and charities, as well as directing science fiction films (including 1963’s Unearthly Stranger) and doing stints on both The Saint and The Avengers, for which he also directed the series’ famously stylish color opening credits. Krish directed several other PIFs, including 1977’s “The Finishing Line” for the British Transport Commission, a short broadside meant to warn children of the dangers of trespassing on railway tracks. It provoked such a violent reaction of outrage from viewers when it was originally shown that it was withdrawn for 20 years.

Without the need for any narrative goals other than to terrify the viewer into absorbing its message—and achieving its purpose with admirable economy as well as what might be called notable psychological violence—“Searching” captures perfectly the essence of the PIF and its visceral impact on viewers—especially upon the impressionable young. Like nightmarish non-sequiturs, the films appeared randomly and without warning, inserting the surreal terror of a nightmare amidst the cozy rituals of British telly, only to then vanish like a bad memory when the next program began. Artifacts like 1973’s “Lonely Water,” where a cowled figure of death voiced by Donald Pleasance visits karmic justice upon that most despised inhabitant of 1970s Britain—the show-off—have become famous for their questionably graphic approaches; even nominally less objectionable PIFs like the “Charley Says” series, designed to alert children to everyday dangers, seem oddly disconcerting to modern sensibilities.

Perhaps this violence was justified by the films’ aims. Though shockingly large numbers of children in contemporary Britain still lack the essentials for a safe, healthy life despite the country’s wealth, it is difficult now to remember quite how self-sufficient British children were, as a norm, expected to be, and quite how unregulated the environments they inhabited once were. The Britain of the early 1970s was a country where derelict buildings, construction sites, and the remains of bombed houses coexisted, and where parents were, by today’s standards, sanguine about allowing children to roam free. Did the COI really see the Britain of the day as the risk-intensive environment its films seem to imply, or was the surprising cruelty of the PIFs simply an economical way of ensuring that important messages would not be ignored in what was then a less mediated place, both physically and socially?

Or was some deeper instinct at play? After all, danger—along with guilt—was used even when the issue in question was mere littering. Was a generation that had lived through, or been brought up in the shadow of, global violence subconsciously taking the opportunity to project its traumas onto the new generations, perhaps as a way of making them pay for their privileged, safer lives? There does almost seem to be something vindictive, even sadistic, about the way many of the films’ messages are communicated. Could it be that their creators were unwittingly attempting to inculcate in children the same feelings of danger and impermanence that they themselves had experienced? Was it that, as Britain shifted away from the more physical culture that had once seen the threat of a clout around the head as the preferred way of ensuring a message stuck, the institutions took it upon themselves to deal that clout out collectively and preemptively?

Or, again, could it have been a side-effect of the postwar British egalitarianism that allowed an influx of the working-class into traditionally middle- and upper-class professions like the media—people who brought with them half-digested memories of the volkish irrationalities of their forebears? Britain’s agrarian and proletarian folklore is awash with gloom, horror and pessimism, so it seems only natural that those climbing the social ladder might, intentionally or otherwise, bring it with them as they ascended. Perhaps this was some mass propitiatory touching of wood by a society that was still too disbelieving of its postwar good fortune—free healthcare, free schools, free eyeglasses, pensions, unemployment benefits—to believe that some form of cosmic retribution wasn’t due.

Whatever the reason, the Public Information Films had a powerful and possibly transformative effect upon the mentality of several generations of British youth, especially upon those overly-sensitive, overly-credulous children–including, unfortunately, myself—who found that their brains had, without their consent, been equipped with a mechanism capable of imbuing even the most innocuous situation with shades of threat, encouraging an obsession with consequence and fostering an oppressive avoidance of risk. The fact that by the early ’80s PIFs were increasingly incongruous, their film scratchy and worn, only added to their disturbing power, conferring on them a taint of the illicit and unhealthy that they shared with the horror film trailers at the beginning of VHS cassettes. By the end of the decade, the old PIFs ended their existence as a source of amusement, their po-faced absurdity ripe for the mockery of post-modern dissection until the overlap of amateur video recordings and the internet allowed them to be rediscovered. Public information films have continued to be produced, but their cultural footprint has shrunk to almost nothing in parallel with the dwindling power of the once almost unilateral communication channel of the television screen.

In some ways, the Britain of today seems to have put behind it the gloomy obsession with death, harm, and consequence that was once such a pervasive, if marginal, element of the national character: a more upbeat, less morbid mood has taken its place, and the doomy undertone that was once the norm now seems almost as distant as the headiness of the interwar years. But strange and possibly even more unhealthy new discomforts have already emerged to disturb the psychologies of the country’s 21st century inhabitants, and how they will play out is anyone’s guess.

9 thoughts on ““Mum Says It’s Alright As Long As I’m Careful”: British Public Information Films

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