The joy of Public Information Films

If you're of a certain age, you'll remember Public Information Films. Often like a cut-price Hammer Horror which instructed young whippersnappers not to fly kites near pylons or the dangers of falling asleep with a ciggie in your hand. Claire remembers them with great affection.

A place of joy, until you watched too many public information films. Photo by Ygesp_4b released under Creative Commons.

Claire Sheppard

Claire Sheppard

Friday 17 March

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It was Christmas around the turn of the Millennium, I was living back at my parents house having finished Uni and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life, but knowing I was unlikely to find out in King’s Lynn a town where Bill Hick’s “Lookie here, we got a Reader” rang far far too true to be funny. Highlights of the season on TV included Boyzone on the National Lottery and Jim Davidson’s Generation Game and A Touch of Frost Christmas Special, they were dark days, so when I looked through the listings and saw The League of Gentlemen had done a Christmas Special I knew it was my one must see of the festive period.

I sat down with my parents explaining that they may not get this one but it was one of my favourites so please try not to ask what is going on. As the show progressed I became aware that my parents were not only silent, but silently appalled, looking at me like some strange specimen, not their beloved progeny. My mum fumed “How Claire? How can you find this funny? What is wrong with you?” It’s something I’ve asked myself many times since and I’ve come to the realisation that it’s in no small part due to a childhood love of Public Information Films.

Yeah you heard me, as a child I loved Public Information films and quite honestly I still do. The BFI has a wonderful resource here for people like me so I’ve spent a little while revisiting a few of my favourites and pondering how this weird thing I love has shaped me.

Now this could be my memory but I’m fairly sure this archive is missing a few classics like “The Christmas Tree Lights Burning Your Entire House Down and Everyone In It” and “Falling Asleep Pissed Smoking Setting Fire to an Armchair and then Burning Your Entire House Down and Everyone In It” – I spent much of the early 80’s unplugging things and moving my parents ashtrays onto coffee tables. In the main I found them found simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, much like my adult love of The League of Gentlemen.

Now some of the Public Information Films were clearly aimed at us kids, they employed a range of motifs from Charly the Cat and his annoying Human Sidekick who told me not to play with fun things like matches (I’m aware I sound a little pyro here) to The Green Cross Code Man. You probably remember these too because The Green Cross Code Man was also Darth Vader albeit overdubbed without his awesome West Country accent and as for Charly well he of course led the wave of 1990’s Rave Classics based on slightly sinister music and characters from your childhood  The Magic Roundabout Theme raved up was one of my personal highlights, discordant fairground piped music, reach for the muthalovin lasers!

But no, these aren’t the ones I loved, the ones I loved are darker. Ones like this

Look I still don’t know WHY I found it funny that a little boy on a huge beach, running like hell, barefoot, where to little kid, why aren’t you running to the sea like every other child who gets to a beach, where are your parents? Why did / do I find it funny that he runs, presumably onto that broken lemonade bottle with no adult or friend to be seen? What IS wrong with me?

Is it the peril the kids are placed in and then avoid, either by judicious editing, as in this case or by a cheap knock off of Metal Mickey and them neatly avoid being run over,  am I laughing at the danger being avoided, is it the laughter of relief? Maybe? I laugh when I am scared still as a woman of 40.

I suspect the pompous voice over may be a good part of it and this is something that is a common theme throughout even when reaching for frivolity. As in this film.

Given the animation you’d think this is a warning to kids wouldn’t you? Hey kids don’t climb in pink fridges! Sidenote – I’m reasonably sure that pink fridges weren’t a thing in the UK until the non Red Dwarf related Smeg explosion of the 21st Century so where did this locakable pink fridge come from? No wonder the kid is thinking about playing in it it’s like a spaceship…. This cartoon, replete with handy suggestions of things the kids could be thinking imagining the fridge into is aimed at adults, not by saying “don’t dump fridges guys that is Not Cool!” the advice is to smash the door or the lock off which looking back may be responsible for a fair bit of CFC’s making a hole in the ozone along with the amount of hairspray that Britain got through in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s amazing! When I saw this one again today I properly guffawed. It’s ludicrous, it’s a DEATHTRAP!

The COI or Central Office of Information made these films and about 15 years ago as an adult I started to do market research work for the COI. They were by far my favourite client not least because whilst waiting in reception you could watch classics like “The One Where Kids Fly a Kite into a Pylon and Stupidly Try to Retrieve it”, I can’t see that one on the BFI either but believe me it was probably a hoot. But these films were important, the fact that one of the first things to go in the early days of the Coalition was the COI really sticks in my craw. I’ve never run onto broken glass on a beach or thrown glass away on a beach (the last place  you should throw it!) or tried to climb into a pink fridge because these old classics ran for YEARS on TV. I have done loads of stupid stuff over the years but never anything a public information film told me not to. With the possible exception of falling asleep in an armchair drunk whilst smoking but chairs were clearly a bit more flame resistant by the 1990s. But no – these guys also made the Drink Driving ads that were instrumental in making it utterly unacceptable, they were behind healthy eating initiatives and drug awareness. They were good guys, they were in the business of prevention not cure, I miss working for them.

Of course the Daddy, the Don, the Dog’s Danglers of the genre remains the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I still dream about this sometimes. I’ve never swum in a quarry and I never will. I look at this and I see Royston Vasey and I know that The League were shaped by the COI and their Public Information films, as was I. Here it is, the horror, I leave you with this. Lonely Water, voiced by Donald Pleasence. For now reader adieu, but I’ll be back back back back.

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