Sunday, 2 November 2014

Top 10 Public Information Films

Is JIIIMMYYYY  about to be sacrificed to Thor? Let's see....
Between the 1960s-1980s the UK must've been the most dangerous country in the world, because the (sadly demised) Central Office of Information had to keep producing films informing people of very specific dangers in their lives, known as public information films (PIFs).

Production of PIFs peaked during a time when the old "One Nation"conservative establishment, paternalistic socialism and deference to people in power was at it's final zenith.They're like time capsules because they tell you something about how people lived and the attitudes of the state, as well as being a rare bit of uncompromising frankness on television.

Their low production values and wooden acting gives them a sinister uniqueness that sticks in the memory (which is the whole point I suppose). I consider myself a PIF enthusiast – probably the closest thing I have to a weird hobby - to the point I actually own this and this.

There seems to be one for every occasion and every eventuality. PIFs were often frightening and hilarious at the same time, so there's no better time of year to post this.

10. "Green Cross Code - Be Smart, Be Safe"

Many PIFs drafted celebrities to teach impressionable young people how to stay safe. In hindsight they look like a roll call for knocks on the door as a result of Operation Yewtree, featuring upstanding citizens like Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris.

This series features the likes of the late Alvin Stardust (whose death prompted me to do this post), Kevin Keegan, someone from a band called Mud and Joe Bugner. There's something ironic about a bloke who used to punch people in the face telling children how to stay safe.

This one underlines how distant celebrities are nowadays – especially sports stars. You can't picture Steven Gerrard giving kids a bollocking - "You don't wanna get fookin' twatted by a bus, la'" - after getting out of a £120,000 Range Rover.

9. "Don't Mix Crossply & Radial Tyres"

Someone – presumably making a getaway from Operation Yewtree – tries to take a sharp corner on an industrial estate in an Austin rust bucket. Except the fool had cross ply radial tyres on two axels....or something. In the end he just gives up and covers his face instead of actually trying to control the car. I know this is supposed to be a serious message, but it's more like Some Mothers Do Ave Em slapstick.

8. "Prams & Pushchairs"

Watching a baby get a face full of shopping is "every mother's worst nightmare". What's worse is that this is probably the most disproportionate PIF in terms of the level of fear induced vs the seriousness of the problem. The start is straight out of Edvard Munch's "Scream" painting. So you could say PIFs invented the "internet screamer".

It's also another example of how times have changed, as you rarely – if ever - see anyone leave babies unattended outside supermarkets today. Surely the bigger nightmare is the baby not being there when you come back?

7. "Take The Right Steps"

As you can tell, there are two broad groups of people that have to be patronised into not accidentally killing themselves – children and old people. Older people might have an attitude of "making do" due to shortages when they were younger, but even their thriftiness and ingenuity was considered a danger. Compo from Last of the Summer Wine narrates as - in unnecessarily violent detail – a "stunt-nan" (clearly a bloke in a wig) is sent crashing through a Welsh dresser, with a light bulb smashing on the fireplace, presumably to symbolise what would happen to their skull.

What a lovely way to send pensioners off to bed before "Closedown"....

6. "Charley Says – Strangers"

One of the more iconic PIF "characters" was Charley the Cat. That's probably because of the unnerving animation, which in this instance created an "otherworldly" nonce who had legs that bent outward at the knee. It was so burned into the memories of youngsters of that age it ended up being sampled on a Prodigy track.

Also, it flags up the hypocrisy (or fuzzy memories) of people who go on about how great things were in the "good old days" because there was no crime, no rampant child abuse and children played outside safe from everything. "Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville will tell them what to do to keep safe!" Which leads me nicely into....

5. "Play Safe - Frisbee"

"That like a frisbee chucked into a sub-station you spurn me thus."

Not only would it have taken skill to get a frisbee where it landed, but it's a learning experience for both of them. She learns how to successfully manipulate men, "Go on Jimmy, do it for me!" (c/o Charlie Brooker); while he's pussy-whipped into returning the lady's favour in order to prove he's the big man (pounding something open with a large piece of wood being very Freudian).
I also like how the soundtrack towards the end is like one of those old "game over" tunes....

passing 66,000 volts through his fragile body for that privilege would clearly be a great honour, there are very few women I would do that for.

4. "Protect & Survive – Casualties"

This is an odd one because it was never broadcast – for good reason. If you ever saw this on TV, it would be time to "place your head between your thighs and kiss your arse goodbye". The circumstances under which this would've been shown are scarier than the PIF itself (An anniversary nobody wants to remember). This is the last in a series of around 20 films produced to tell the population what to do if WWIII were about to break out – up to and including how to dispose of dead bodies, which would presumably family members.

"Protect and Survive?" More like "Hide and Die".

Protect & Survive was made all the more haunting by the deeply unsettling Kraftwerk-style synth ditty which accompanied this series as a "jingle".

3. "Electricity Kills/Fix Things Properly"

There are two things you don't muck about with whether at home or in the workplace : gas and electricity. A guy with magnificent sideburns tries to jam bare wires into a plug socket with....matches!? (I realise the economic situation in the 1970s was bad, but did anyone really do that?) Then, predictably, he's sacrificed to your Thunder Gods. This PIF could only be more 70s if a power cut saved his life, he wore a donkey jacket, didn't turn up to work because he was on strike, and it had more orange and brown.

2. "AIDS – Don't Die of Ignorance"

With the benefit of hindsight, campaigning and research, AIDS is no longer an death sentence (though still a very serious disease). But during the 1980s there were an awful lot of misconceptions about how you could catch HIV and who from. The UK Government didn't muck about, hiring Saatchi & Saatchi to produce this near apocalyptic PIF which didn't hold back.

Narrated by John Hurt, this became one of the most successful public health campaigns ever by putting the fear of God into people, made all the more relevant today considering the current worries over ebola (which is a whole lot more lethal than HIV). Due to the timing of the campaign, it also resulted in (for people my age anyway) an upsurge in those playground catch-22 jokes, "Have you got AIDS/HIV? Are you positive?"

1. "The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water"

John Hurt did a good job above, but this is the most infamous example of using a classically trained actor (Donald Pleasance) to instill a sinister sense of foreboding and dread, making it scarier than many high-production horror films.

Considering children don't really pay attention to anything anyway, I'm pretty sure whoever made this realised children really would listen to the disembodied voice of the Grim Reaper implying that bodies of water are haunted by malevolent spirits - to the point that this PIF is often described as "traumatising a generation" (these things were usually shown between children's programmes).

If PIFs were an art, this is the Mona Lisa. It's absolutely perfect on every level in terms of cinematography and script, and it's arguably scarier than the thing it's warning you about.