Paul Childs

Aug 18, 2017

We take another look back at the public information films put out by the Central Office Of Information…

I’m sat writing this on the balcony of my apartment overlooking the majestic Salford Quays. It’s a lovely afternoon and the sun is beating down as families, all dressed in their finest summer attire, chomp on ice-cream while enjoying a relaxing canal side stroll.

Down on the other side of the canal basin is a group of boys, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old (plus a few much younger ones), dressed in nothing but swimming trunks. They’re goading each other on to leap from the bridge into the dark waters below. One by one they take the plunge, all the while laughing and whooping. One of the younger boys climbs up on the bridge, but is afraid to jump, despite the encouragement of his chums. Then his big brother shouts at him to get down from there because “Mum’ll kill me if anything happens to you!”

While this is happening I can hear the local news on the TV in the lounge. They’re running a story about a teenage boy who has drowned in a reservoir in Rochdale while out swimming with his friends. Nobody can understand how he got into trouble. Apparently he was a strong swimmer.

A few years ago I wrote a light-hearted look at some of the more well-known public information films (or PIFs as fans refer to them). One of those PIFs mentioned was Lonely Water, a stark warning about the dangers of messing about by lakes and river banks. It featured a hooded spirit voiced by Donald Pleasance whose sole purpose was to lure foolhardy children to their watery doom. Anyone old enough to have seen it has absolutely never forgotten it. So traumatising was it, that it was included in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments.

Public information films from the 70s and 80s

Forgive my serious introduction but in the few days between that article being submitted and published, there were several drowning incidents which were blamed on teenagers taking advantage of reservoirs and gravel pits to cool down during the famously hot summer of 2013.

It has been a few weeks now since I sat down to write the paragraphs above. The tragic irony of the situation did not escape me as the seemingly innocent summer fun unfolded below. While this is going to be a mostly light-hearted look back at more PIFs which scared or entertained us into keeping safe, I feel it’s important to remember that the Central Office of Information (COI) made all of these films, some of which were intentionally humorous, with deadly serious intent. Events of recent years, including the absolutely horrific drowning of Rugby Union professional Nevin Spence in a slurry pit in 2012 (a hazard which was highlighted in Apaches), beg the question: Should hard hitting films like these be brought back to scare a new generation into awareness of the hazards around them?

I know PIFs still exist today but they are generally smoking, alcohol or driving related ones more often shown in conjunction with shows aimed at adults. When I was a kid it was not rare for an ad break between Marmalade Atkins and Danger Mouse to feature one or two really quite upsetting PIFs.

So here is another selection – some whimsical, some serious, and some downright disturbing!

Airbeds (1980)

Richard Taylor Cartoon Films was responsible for some of the most well-known animated PIFs. Their repertoire includes the paranoia fuelled Rabies Advice, the deeply disturbing yet (thankfully) never broadcast Protect & Survive, the charming Children Overtake (in which Kenny Everett excitedly commentates an elderly gentleman demonstrating how to safely cycle past a parked car), the cold and depressing Frozen Ponds, the irritatingly chipper earworm-inducing The Swim Song (“Breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and crawl…”) and of course the beloved Charley Says series.

But I have chosen Airbeds – a fun little film from 1980. In classic farcical style, the supposed role-model demonstrates the potential dangers of inflatable airbeds to his young ward while doing exactly what he is warning against. Like many of the PIFs directed by Richard Taylor, a serious message is delivered in a fun or eye-catching way.

The Fatal Floor (1974)

It all starts so well. Some jolly easy listening music accompanies a cheerful old lady doing a spot of housework. From the cards on the mantelpiece it’s clear that she is about to greet a new grandson into the family home. Lovely. Better make sure the whole place is spick and span for the new arrival eh? Dig those groovy cars and fashions as the proud parents arrive home from the hospital, ready to show off their little one.

It’s a charming snapshot of domestic bliss. What could possibly go wrong as our intrepid suburbanites visit Grandma? Will they fall foul of the traffic? Are there any low hanging power lines? Is Donald Pleasance lurking behind a tree, ready to push them into a nearby fish pond?

Er. No.

Proving that the COI would make a PIF for just about any potential hazard, it turns out that Grandma’s rigorous cleaning regimen is the deadly danger here. As with many PIFs there is a huge juxtaposition between the mundane and the macabre. I won’t ruin the magnificently disproportionate metaphor and hilarious punchline – just watch this darkly humorous masterpiece and have a long think about what you have just seen.

Coincidentally, later on the same day that I wrote the above, and scoffed at the unlikely choice of subject matter, I was visiting my in-laws. While taking my bag to the bedroom I skidded across the newly polished laminate floor, almost coming a cropper.

That’ll teach me to not take PIFs seriously…

Strangers: Mr Punch (1980)

Good grief! Where to begin with this!?

I found Punch and Judy to be creepy as hell before they appeared in this incredibly dark film. Does anybody actually find them charming or endearing? The pitch black room and unsettling uplighting of the puppet booth gives the usually cheerful characters a distinctly sinister look (as if they weren’t frightening enough). Now I know how Garth felt when Wayne was scaring him with that Leprechaun impression.

And what about those legs stalking around behind the rapt youngsters? It’s heavily insinuated that they belong to a stranger out to lure one of these children away with his promise of sweeties and small furry animals or a story of sick relatives sending him to pick them up.

“Always remind your children about the danger from strangers, but do it in such a way as you don’t frighten ‘em” says the Constable. Great advice. Maybe start by not showing them this PIF.

That’s not the way to do it.

Have A Crocodile Smile (1975)

Around the same time that I wrote my first PIF article I was not very well. I was kept awake by terrible pain for three whole nights. By the fourth day, lack of sleep was causing some really disconcerting aural hallucinations. I can safely say that neither breaking my leg nor accidentally stabbing myself with my Swiss Army Knife (there should be a PIF for that) were as painful as the nightmare that is toothache. Until I managed to get it seen to by my dentist, all I could think was that my infected molar felt just like Jeremy’s tooth.

Jeremy is a naughty lion who eats too many sweets and doesn’t brush anywhere near enough. All the other well behaved animals gather at the watering hole to brush their teeth and mock poor Jeremy (who is now paying the price for his lack of dental hygiene) behind his back. It’s a fun little cartoon making an extremely serious point which Andy Hallett (Angel’s green-skinned lounge singer, Lorne) learned to his cost.

Around the time that the final season of Angel wrapped in 2005, Hallett was suffering from terrible pain in one of his wisdom teeth. According to his wife, fear of the dentist prevented him from making an appointment for treatment right away. Unfortunately, the infection spread from his tooth into his bloodstream, eventually reaching and significantly weakening his heart. Sadly he passed away from heart failure in 2009 aged just 33 – a direct result of not looking after his teeth.

Fireworks: Eyes (1974)

1973 is regarded as a particularly good year for horror cinema with films like The Crazies, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, The Legend Of Hell House and The Wicker Man all being released. Indeed, Folk Horror had also been enjoying a surge in popularity in the late 60s and early 70s. It’s clear to see the influence of that very British sub-genre on this particular PIF.

It begins with a child, back to the camera, shot from close to the ground with the sun glinting from behind his silhouetted form. Just three seconds in and we’re already feeling a dreamlike sense of unease. Misdirection and juxtaposition being some of the greatest weapons in the horror director’s arsenal, the montage of children doing all kinds of fun things that we are informed our subject can no longer do adds to the disquiet.

But it’s the last ten seconds in which the eeriness really takes hold. As a haunting flute melody plays, a soft focus camera guides us around a meadow and a throng of motionless children stand with their backs to the camera, gazing towards the setting sun. The staging of this scene is not unlike the dream sequence at the end of Carrie. We even get treated to a bit of a jump-scare as the boy from the start of the film suddenly spins around to show us exactly why he can’t play anymore.

Most of us who saw this on TV back in the day have never forgotten it. Its spine-chilling timbre makes it an incredibly effective film.

Green Cross Code: Children’s Heroes (1976)

The first Green Cross Code advert resulted in an 11% drop in road casualties. Unfortunately those figures rose back to their original level within six months of the first broadcast. In response to this the COI decided to refresh their PIFs semi-regularly with exciting characters who would make the kids sit up and take notice. They simultaneously ran two campaigns, one featuring the superhero Green Cross Man (played by soon to be Sith Lord Dave Prowse) and the other starring a variety of colourful celebrities: mop-headed football wunderkind Kevin Keegan, tiger-footed singer Les Gray of Mud, the recently replaced Doctor Jon Pertwee and Glam Rock sensation Alvin Stardust.

There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this PIF I have chosen aside from it features Alvin Stardust delivering some sound road safety advice to a couple of day-dreaming kids in a way that only Alvin Stardust could. The line he confronts them with regarding their poor attention spans, combined with his deadpan delivery is pure, unintentional comedy gold!

Play Safe: Frisbee (1979)

Play Safe was a series of three short films warning of the dangers of electricity while playing in the great outdoors (which according to these films is mostly comprised of grey clouds, concrete, steel and pain). One focused on flying kites and toy aeroplanes, another on sailing and fishing and this, which is quite probably one of the most famous PIFs of all time, is more about trespassing than the dangers of the flying disc.

There’s something really quite unearthly about the intro. The eponymous disc floats gently into shot between the deadly steel and concrete monoliths of an electricity substation as a moody piece of electronica plays. The threatening tones becoming more urgent as Jimmy, our easily led hero, is goaded into breaking in to retrieve the errant toy from the ‘live apparatus’. Such is the doom laden atmosphere that we are under no illusion that this is going to end any way other than ‘not well’.

A few years ago a friend and I hosted a series of 80s nights for our friends. As well as spinning discs of all the old favourites, we liked to project the occasional music video up on the wall. This evolved into other clips from the period and inevitably we ended up playing a few PIFs in between songs (or to announce that the buffet is now open). At one such event I decided, without thinking about my audience, to play the Frisbee film. It turns out that today’s children are not quite as acclimatised to such a level of sustained threat as we were back then. It took the promise of no more scary videos and some free sweeties from my Retro Tuck Shop to coax them back out of the toilets.

Charley: Mummy Should Know (1973)

The Charley Says films, with their charming mix of animation and cute characters, squarely focused on pre-schoolers as their target audience. As voiced by the incomparable, anarchic Kenny Everett, you could always rely on good old Charley to deliver some sound safety advice in that incomprehensible feline tongue of his.

The message here really dates this story as, to modern sensibilities, small children going out on their own to play seems like a terribly ill-informed idea. But, go out to play we did! I was no stranger myself to hopping on my Raleigh Strika, aged only 6 or 7 and whizzing down to my friend Marcus’ house for adventures in his back garden or up the field. I always told my mum where I was going – a habit which continued until I left for university at the age of 18. Heck, I still do it today sometimes, even though I live 150 miles away!

Something that struck me about this short animation was the old fashioned name given to one of the friends who come to call on our heroes (officially the boy is called Tony, but has never been named on screen). As a name, Dave is understandable as it was in the top five boys names throughout much of the 70s (and still just manages to hang on in the top 50 today) but Vera was most popular around 1911 (and is currently enjoying a slight resurgence today). In 1973 it was at an all-time low.

The only reason I can think of for the writers use those particular names is that, along with Chuck, a shortened version of Charley, they form the trio of grandchildren mentioned in Paul McCartney’s ode to growing old together – When I’m Sixty-Four!

The Sewing Machine (1971)

Despite making his name filming documentaries about British life in the 1940s and 50s, and creating the iconic credits sequences for The Avengers, director John Krish is best known for his work in safety films. Some of the most iconic and shocking PIFs are attributed to him. So adept was he at killing off youngsters on screen that he gained the nickname Doctor Death. It was Krish who was responsible for British Transport Films’ controversial twenty minute epic bloodbath The Finishing Line as well as Searching, a truly disturbing PIF in which we experience the first person perspective of a fire investigator exploring a burned out home as he begins to hear the ghostly echoes of the victims.

Regarded as his finest work, The Sewing Machine masterfully creates tension, much in the way that Stephen King is wont to, by bluntly telling us that a character is doomed from the outset. Something as simple as a clock counting down from sixty seconds becomes almost unbearable. We all know what’s going to happen but each time I see this I vainly will the little girl to stay away from the road. The mother’s haunted face at the end as she realises what has happened is a well-acted, powerful moment.

It’s interesting to note that this film seems to contradict the message of Charley Says film I touched upon above.

The Pedal Safety Song (1978)

To end on, let’s lighten the mood with a sing-a-long. Altogether now…

Make it big!
Make it bold!
Make it bright!
But get yourself seen!

Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you went in there for? If you remember any of these PIFs then of course you have! But I bet you can remember all of the words to the song that was number one on your 9th birthday (if it is Pipes Of Peace by Paul McCartney then I salute you). Similarly, the lyrics to The Pedal Safety Song have never left me and neither has the message. I always make sure that I am well lit and visible when out for a ride and I put that attitude almost entirely down to this song.

There are so many things about this PIF that I have never forgotten. The cool dude in his shiny silver baseball hat and tracksuit, the tweed and flat-cap wearing beardy fellow riding a Brompton folding bike with the tiny wheels, the old gent doffing his bowler hat to the young businesswoman cycling by. It’s a lovely, bright, relentlessly cheery piece of nostalgia where everybody is happy and nice to each other. A tonic for all the death, destruction and grey 70s brutalism if ever there was one!

Just one thing concerns me as a responsible, modern cyclist: Why is nobody wearing a helmet?

And that’s all for now, so remember, when you’re out and about, follow the Green Cross Code, get yourself seen, tell your mummy where you are going learn to swim, brush your teeth and just darned well Play Safe.

When he’s not uploading PIFs to his YouTube channel, Paul writes short stories for his website, Badgers Crossing