I count myself very lucky having grown up in the 70s and 80s. Like today’s kids, we had computer games, great films and TV shows, amazing music and incredible toys but, on top of those distractions, we were also no stranger to leaping on our BMX and pedalling off in search of a day long, school holiday adventure.
But there were a vast array of terrible dangers out there, so the British government’s Central Office of Information peppered advertisement breaks during children’s programming with oft-repeated short films designed to advise us on how to negotiate the veritable minefield of deadly obstacles. Of course, they didn’t so much advise as traumatise us into behaving with their horrific scenes of misguided unfortunates befalling gruesome fates as a result of their own stupidity.
Here are ten Public Information Films (or PIFs) which guided (or terrorised) us towards common sense. Why not show them to your kids to keep ‘em out of trouble this summer holiday?
My uncle was a farmer and always made sure my brothers and I were aware of the hazards when visiting him at work (‘Hay Bale Fort’ was banned before it even began). However, some kids saw the farmyard as an obstacle-course of adventure, so this half hour film was commissioned, and shown in schools, to put paid to this dangerous behaviour. Narrator Danny introduces us to his trespassing friends whilst referring back, throughout the film, to a party his parents are preparing for. The pesky kids then proceed to get into a series of increasingly graphic scrapes with agricultural equipment until only one remains.
The film has a bizarre, dreamlike quality to it: despite the carnage going on around them, the adults appear not to notice anything wrong, let alone do anything to help, and the kids themselves, engaged in a game of cowboys and Indians, recover all too quickly from the shock of seeing their peers die horribly. A spooky twist ending, revealing Danny to be a ghost awaiting his own wake, plus a closing credits sequence listing the names and ages of children killed in actual farmyard accidents (some as young as two years old) makes this PIF macabre viewing.
Lonely Water (1973)
While Rolf Harris’ water safety campaign was all gentle anecdotes and beard-splashing fun with the emphasis very much on learning to swim, this darker campaign was deliberately designed, like a low-rent Jaws, to scare kids away from water altogether. Horror legend Donald Pleasance gives voice to the villain, the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, a ghostly, monk-like figure who stalks reckless and unwary youngsters, waiting for his moment to drag them down into the depths of reservoirs, quarries and other dark, lonely and watery places. When sensible children, his nemeses, rescue a foolish child from his clutches the Spirit melts away, Obi-Wan style, leaving only his cloak behind. Although he was beaten this time his parting threat of “I’ll be back!” reverberated in the ears and minds of terrified viewers for many years afterwards.
Electricity: Football (1989)
PIFs would have us believe that the countryside was not so much a green and pleasant land but rather a wasteland of substations, pylons and power cables just waiting for you to get close so they could unleash their evil death-rays on you. Outdoor pursuits like sailing, fishing, kite flying and, perhaps most famously, playing Frisbee each received their own electricity awareness film, but this PIF went one step further than most by not only frazzling the foolish Darren, who breaks into a substation to steal a football, but also his concerned sibling who only tries to help his stricken big brother. The over-the-top pyrotechnics leave us in no doubt as to the unfortunate nipper’s fate – all that’s missing from the special effects team’s heavy handed tactics to drive the message home is a pair of empty plimsolls with smoke rising out of them.
Vandalism: Where’s Your Lad? (1976)
Although a large proportion of PIFs were directed at children, many also played on the fears of adults. In this short but succinct film it’s not what they show that scares, but what they ask. John grabs his coat and heads off into the night with his rowdy, cajoling chums to get up to, well, we don’t know what. The spark of doubt is stoked into a raging fire of mistrust in the minds of suspicious grown-ups by the closing caption accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. The insinuation is vandalism – but he could be going to take hot meals to homeless puppies for all we know.
Andy Lights The Fire (1980)
A predominant theme in PIFs is the punishment of the morbidly stupid and unobservant. Each one addresses a clear and present danger, but I can’t really imagine any real person reaching the same heights of idiocy as the hapless fool who must have inspired the creation of this one. Not only does Andy discard a still smouldering match with little regard for where it lands, but he keeps his Beanos in the one place guaranteed to make seasoned comic collectors weep into their storage bags. Carelessness with matches is one thing, but equally I would have never treated my prized tomes with such contempt (it was just bad timing that I threw up all over mine during an accidental Sherbet Fountain overdose). Recklessness like Andy’s always ends in tears (and flames).
Green Cross Man (1975)
Alvin Stardust, Kevin Keegan and even the third Doctor were among the celebrities who taught us about the dangers of playing with the traffic in the 70s, but none are as fondly remembered as the superhero-cum-lollypop-lady Green Cross Man. His super-computer would alert him to a child about to commit a lethal road-crossing faux-pas so he would teleport in, often aided by his robot sidekick (who looked like the love child of Metal Mickey and a bottle of Night Nurse), direct the child to safety and give them a good dressing down, while warning the viewer to “Always use the Green Cross Code, because I won’t be there when you cross the road”.
Most memorable of all though was the fact that he was played by none other than Darth Vader himself, David Prowse. Prowse magnanimously supported the ad campaign with countless school appearances – including my primary school where he delivered a Green Cross Code assembly and afterwards gave me a personal snippet of road safety advice whilst signing my 1983 Return Of The Jedi annual.
Charley: Strangers (1973)
In the innocent 70s and 80s, we were rarely told the reasons why strangers wanted to take us away from our mummies or what harm they might do to us back at their lair, but we were, thanks to PIFs like this, fully aware of the trickery they employed to get us in their car. Offers of sweeties, lifts home from school, news of sick relatives or cute furry animals were all ruses which set our Stranger Danger alarm bells ringing.
The Charley series, aimed at pre-school children, would normally focus on the rewards for avoiding hazards. Like a feline Jiminy Cricket, the eponymous Charley acted as a conscience to Tony, his seven-year-old owner. After catching Tony engaging in a dangerous act of folly, Charley (voiced by Kenny Everett) would deliver a safety lecture in moggy talk which the boy would then translate for the non-cat-speaking viewers whilst ceasing his perilous activity. Sometimes Charley would become the victim of Tony’s mischief but thankfully, in this instance, under his pet’s expert guidance Tony says “No” to the duffle-coated, puppy-promising, potential paedophile and they are rewarded with an apple for Tony and a fish for Charley.
So beloved are the Charley shorts that they were not only voted the UK’s favourite PIF but also managed to get into Channel 4’s 100 best ever cartoons poll.
The Railway Children (the literary characters, not the band) would have you believe that train tracks are a fun place to spend a long summer’s day – but British Transport Films set out to tackle this assumption head on with their own series of distressing films which, like Apaches, were shown extensively in schools. Although not official COI films, the BTF’s own shorts are often lumped in with them by fans of the genre as they contain the same themes of unwitting youths in dire straits (the dangerous situation, not the band) and doom foreshadowing synth soundtracks.
Robbie tells the story of a football enthusiast who trespasses on the tracks with, as expected, terrible consequences. Three different versions of film were shown with alternate middle sections, each showing a different danger to be found on the railway, but all resulting in the same cruel, ironic twist: Robbie receives life changing injuries meaning he can never play the beautiful game again. To drive the message home with a final blow, we are left with a closing shot of the poor kid’s sad, unused football boots hanging on the back of his bedroom door. Even the reassuring presence of children’s TV favourites Peter Purves or Keith Chegwin (depending on whether you saw the original or the 1986 edit) could not stop classrooms full of kids from being traumatised into getting the message.
Rabies: Outbreak (1976)
Trips to the video store in the early 80s held mixed emotions for me. On one hand we got to hire out the likes of Herbie Goes Bananas or an anime import I’d never heard of (although the cover looked cool) but, for some inexplicable reason, to get to the children’s section you had to first go through Horror (in more than one sense of the word). Whilst the Betamax covers for Shriek Of The Mutilated and Cannibal Holocaust still haunt my dreams to this day, it was the artwork for Zombie Flesh Eaters which really put the willies up me. It’s hard to believe in these post Warm Bodies times that in the 70s and 80s zombies really were the terrifyingest of movie monsters, and it’s that same vibe that the makers of the rabies awareness PIFs were going for.
Despite no recorded human deaths in almost three quarters of a century, they had us believing that if just one infected creature got loose in the UK, it would only be a matter of days before we were either stockpiling bottles of Perrier and barricading our homes against rampaging hoards of small furry creatures, or transforming into foam-mouthed, bitey hydrophobes. The message was clear – don’t smuggle animals from abroad or the only thing that will be able to save us is Brad Pitt.
Protect & Survive: Casualties (1975)
Perhaps the most chilling PIFs ever created, the Protect & Survive series was intended to be released to UK citizens if an outbreak of nuclear war seemed likely within 72 hours. Voice-over royalty Patrick Allen narrated the simple animations (made by the team behind Charley) with his authoritative tone providing advice ranging from pointless (hide in a ditch and cover your eyes) to sinister (how to bag, tag and bury the dead). The whole idea of Protect & Survive was so alarming to a generation who grew up in the constant shadow of Armageddon that it beat Dracula in Channel 4’s poll of the scariest things ever.
Although thankfully never broadcast, it nevertheless inspired Cold War themes in popular culture for decades through the likes of drama (Threads, Spooks) comedy (Only Fools & Horses, The Young Ones), film (When The Wind Blows), videogames (Fallout 2) and even the Frankie Goes To Hollywood hit Two Tribes, for which Allen re-recorded many of his iconic lines (plus some new ones). The films and pamphlets were classified for years, but went public in the 80s. Makes you wonder what other top secret films are still out there awaiting a reason for broadcast…
Visit Paul’s Youtube playlist for all the videos mentioned in this article plus other classic PIFs from the period.
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