Public Information Films

Dark and Lonely Waters

words by Freddy Fenech

In 1938, amateur filmmaker Raymond Massingham decided it was high time he left his position as Senior Medical Officer at the London Fever Hospital.

Massingham had long harboured a desire to turn his passion for films into a profession and had garnered a degree of success with a number of shorts, most notably Tell Me If It Hurts, which told the story of a traumatic dental appointment. Despite a very respectable vocation, Massingham, always insecure in his chosen profession and a hypochondriac, left the hospital and embarked upon a professional career in filmmaking by registering a company, Public Relationship Films (PRF).

During the Second World War, Massingham began to direct films for a number of government departments, including the Ministry of Information, and appear onscreen in such Wartime instructional shorts as Post Early for Christmas and Coughs & Sneezes. These proved to be very popular and firmly established PRF as the preferred source for information films in the United Kingdom.

Following Massingham’s death in 1953, and with the Central Office of Information (CIO) now having taken on responsibility for Public Information Films (PIFs), each new short was offered for free to broadcasters as a way to bridge unused advertising time between programming. Thus, the PIF become a mainstay on television during the 1960s until the late 1980s, as ostensibly ‘filler’ content.

But, for children of the 1970s and ’80s, in particular, Public Information Films were less the source of important knowledge and instruction, rather they became the source of nightmares, sandwiched between the routine mundanity of learning the times-table and writing composition. These terrifying jolts of information skewed our childish notions of a luminous world of toys, play and laughter into a much darker, frightening and foreboding place of monsters and misery and the death of curiosity. For most, it would have been the first experience of the harsh realities of the world, and of mortality which lurked insidious and unguarded, even in the sanctuary and apparent safety of our homes. Titles such as Don’t Leave Your Children AloneNever Go With Strangers and the harmlessly appellated but truly horrific Apaches, drove us from the classroom in tears or, for me at least, to the playground to excitedly discuss the latest Public Information Film ‘education’ and make sense of what we’d just witnessed.

Whether you remember sitting in class, wide-eyed and terrified while watching a Public Information Film or have never, until now, experienced their singular unsettling ‘pleasures’, then take a look below…

Never Go With Strangers

This 1971 Public Information Film features a series of alarmingly sinister men attempting to abscond with children with the promise of puppies, goldfish, sweets and all manner of delights as a stern voiceover warns that any of the potential kidnappers, “might be a bit odd in the head.”

The film compares the scenarios that follow to the Grimms’ tales of Hansel & Gretel and Red Riding Hood, and The Arabian Nights fable of Aladdin, albeit with a warning that while the fairytales end happily the same may not be said of reality.

In the most disturbing sequence, a shadow of a man breathing heavily looms over a young, clearly terrified, girl. As he approaches, the voiceover declares ominously, “…and she can’t do anything about it!”

two children talking to a stranger

Apaches

Rightly regarded as one of the most unsettling and downright disturbing Public Information Films, despite some very strong competition, Apaches (directed by John Mackenzie, who also famously helmed The Long Good Friday), follows the adventures of seven friends as they play at Cowboys and Indians, in and around a farm.

Narrated by their leader, Danny, one-by-one the friends succumb to a number of horrific accidents, including falling under tractor wheels, drowning in slurry, and being crushed by a falling metal fence. While all of the deaths are unpleasant, the sound of young Sharon, screaming “Mummy!” as she dies from poisoning is particularly upsetting.

Cut between each death scene, Danny’s narration centres on a party his parents are getting ready to host. It’s only after Danny’s own death do we realised that his parents were not preparing for a celebration at all.

children playing at being apaches

Don’t Leave Your Children Alone

“Last Christmas, I hung the little angels on the Christmas tree and Steven helped me. And then, Mum and Dad went out to a party.”

It should go without saying that no parent should leave their children alone in the house. This short Public Information Film from Christmas 1982 demonstrates very succinctly the tragic impact of a worst-case-scenario. We hear the voice of a little girl talking merrily of the previous Christmas and the fun of dressing the Christmas tree with her younger brother. The joy turns to horror as the girl tells of waking to a smoke-filled house and her brother sobbing.

And then, Steven stopped crying. That was last Christmas.”

The final image shows the little girl asleep on the bottom bed frame of a bunk bed; the mattress on top has been removed.

Lonely Water

The most chilling Public Information Film award must surely go to Lonely Water. Broadcast in 1973 and narrated by Donald Pleasance, who voices the faceless, robed figure that haunts the watersides, Lonely Water (also known as The Spirit of the Lonely Water) begins:

“I am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool, and this is the kind of place you’d expect to find me.”

Originally conceived following a large number of deaths by drowning, Lonely Water’s intention was to ensure that children thought twice before entering any body of water. Instead, for many, this particular Public Information Film scared them away from swimming permanently.

Katy McGahan, writing for the BFI, said Lonely Water was, “eerily redolent of Nicolas Roeg‘s Don’t Look Now…..plays like a distilled horror film, deploying the menacing tone and special effects normally the preserve of x-rated cinema shockers.”

the grim reaper

The Balloon

Seven years before Stephen King’s IT was published, 11 years before Tim Curry immortalised the character of Pennywise and a full 38 years before the reboot, a charmingly creepy clown wandered, balloons in hand, into a playground somewhere in England.

The clown’s presence is ultimately a benign one. He simply looks forlorn every time a balloon bursts, since it signifies a child has been in a collision with a car. Though it’s entirely possible he cares less about the child than his brightly coloured kiddy-mesmerisers.

This Public Information Film isn’t so much scary as moderately unnerving, but it’s unlikely that a friendly dancing clown is likely to ever be utilised again to warn children of the perils of crossing the road without looking. Everything does not float down here.

Play Safe

‘In a fashion typical for such broadcasts of the period, the films were made to be frightening for young children,’ states the Wikipedia entry for Play Safe. In fact, this Public Information Film was shown before the 9 pm watershed to ensure maximum impact.

In an ostensibly child-friendly setup, we meet a Wise Owl (Brian Wilde) and a young Robin (Bernard Cribbins) as they narrate a series of incidents involving children and electricity. A 10-minute version also includes a fourth sequence not shown on television, involving the repercussions of vandalising an electric pylon which results in the death of a cyclist.

The three broadcasts aired on television were:

Camping and Fishing: This episode highlighted the dangers of using fishing rods and camping equipment near overhead cables.

Kites and Planes: A young boy flies a kite into a powerful overhead cable and receives severe burns from a 132,000-volt pylon.

Frisbee: In the most graphic of the films, a boy attempts to retrieve a Frisbee from a sub-station and is killed instantly via a 66,000-volt charge. In the film’s most shocking scene, we briefly see his legs on fire.

boy attempting to retrieve frisbee from pylons

Robbie

When Peter Purves asks us to pin back out ears and listen, we do just that. The presenter was a warm and authoritative presence for many children during the halcyon days of Blue Peter, but here Purves wants to tell us a story – about trains.

It’s a curious Public Information Film, beginning with a jolly theme and Purvis on voiceover duty, whimsically narrating Robbie’s adventures. Until the moment it all goes wrong. Robbie catches a shoelace while crossing some tracks and he falls, the train bearing down on him, unable to shift his feet over the rails. It’s not a graphic scene (it’s possible Purvis would have baulked at the notion) but it’s tense and no less shocking considering the outcome.

Electricity

This one/two gut-punch of a Public Information Film is a follow-on from the 1978 Play Safe, minus the cute cartoon birds.

Despite the warning signs; fences, electricity, wires, etc., the promise of a free football is too much for one teenager. He attempts to squeeze through a gap in the fence of a sub-station despite his, clearly more intelligent, friend’s protestations.

The synthesised two-note ‘duh duh’ begins to gain tempo as the teen breaks through and heads towards his prize. Inevitably, he connects with an electric surge and fries in a shower of sparks before, in an even more tragic twist, his impressionable younger brother races to help and meets the same fate.

Is Play Safe didn’t ward children away from the dangers of electricity, then this 1989 film surely helped ram the point home.

Dumb Animals

This one is a little off-piste. It’s not a Public Information Film in the classic sense. In actual fact, it’s a Greenpeace film – a critique of the fashion industry and a damning indictment of the fur trade.

The absurd pretentiousness of the entire industry is brought to the fore here, as a number of models wrapped in furs stride up and down a catwalk to the fawning and preening of their audience. We watch as they march to the beat of a Vangelis composition before an audience member recoils from something red splashing her face. Cue: a bit of a gore-fest. It’s a visually arresting reminder of the power of advertising to sometimes do the right thing. The film ends with the following text in white on a black screen: ‘It takes 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat, but only one to wear it.’ 

Despite the Central Office of Information closing in 2011, the impact of the Public Information Film lingers on. Now viewed by many as something of a curio from a time when disturbing informational films could be shown to impressionable pre-teens without cause for reproach – and despite the sometimes dubious quality of acting talent on display – Public Information Films of the 70s and beyond still retain the power to shock and unsettle.

Purchase the Blu-ray The Best of COI Five Decades of Public Information Films by clicking the image below

The Best of COI Five Decades of Public Information Films blu-ray front cover

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