||The Central Office of Information was established in 1946, as after the war it was felt a dedicated department was necessary to relay information to the British public through the medium of film, but also in the form of books and pamphlets, among other media. It is the films, almost always in the shorter style, that most stick in the mind of those who saw them and indeed grew up with them, be that the minute-long "Public Information Films" broadcast on television for decades, or a screening of a longer message in a school hall, telling you not to go with strangers, fool with fireworks or play on the railways.
The BFI release a Best of compilation on Blu-ray amounting to a history of the department from its inception to its eventual disbanding in 2012, though it was the 1960s to the early 1980s that represented the heyday of the material it created, and that is amply exhibited across two discs and an informative booklet. Let us take a closer look at some of those films...
First up on disc one is Children of the City from 1944, produced by the Ministry of Information as was, the predecessor of the COI, and outlines the problem of what was soon to be known as juvenile delinquency, a hot button topic to this day with regard to how much discipline should be applied. This attempts to answer that question.
Second is Brief City from 1952, made as part of The Festival of Britain and detailing the architecture of the London South Bank, then brand new. It was from the studio of Richard Massingham who became a celebrity as a comical buffoon in public information films at the time, directed by himself, though this illustrated he could be serious as well.
Third is 1965's Design for Today, notable for being directed by Hugh Hudson, who went on to British cinematic glory at the helm of Chariots of Fire in the 1980s. He contributes a reflective essay to the booklet where he muses over his work here, essentially a rundown of various new manufacturing designs of which the Mini and the Jaguar E-type are the most memorable.
Fourth is Voyage North from the same year, a recruitment film (the COI made those as well) for the Royal Navy, specifically in the field of submarines. The HMS Artemis is the vessel portrayed in this, and in "win them over early" fashion the short was purposed to be shown to schoolboys in the hope they would wish to join up, potentially as officers.
Fifth is a two-minute nightmare that is etched into the minds of many a 1970s kid: Lonely Water. In 1973 this was produced in response to the increasing numbers of children yearly killed in drowning accidents, so while hindsight may tempt you to laugh this off as the decade trying to terrify the younglings yet again, it did have a gravely serious intent. Donald Pleasence, horror movie star extraordinaire, was the voice of the hooded spirit which gloats over each fresh victim of accidents in water, only to be foiled by "sensible children... I have no power over them..." While the tactics may have been to frighten, the statistics proved they worked as drowning deaths reduced while this was on the air. But the Spirit warns, "I'll be back... back... back..." Every horror hit has a sequel, after all.
Sixth was Drive Carefully Darling, an example of one of the signature images of 1970s PIFs: someone's head going through a windscreen (see the Blunders road safety campaign for more). This was from 1975 and employed the talents of the COI's resident genius John Krish, here applied to getting drivers to remember the highway code and adhere to it, not relying on their complacency of not having an accident so far to get them by. It did so by taking the route of popular comic strip The Numbskulls (see also later blockbuster Inside Out) as the parts of the brain are shown as three white-coated workers (Colin Baker and John Challis among them) who give out orders along the drive, as meanwhile we see the driver's wife and child go about their morning. As is inevitable, after a few near-misses the driver's luck runs out in effective, decidedly non-jokey manner.
Apaches, along with foot and mouth warnings and the PIF about the man staggering through the snow suffering from hypothermia, was almost exclusively shown in rural areas of Britain, yet proved one of the COI's most famous works thanks to its brutality in depicting five kids who foolishly play on and around farmland. One by one, they are killed in graphic depictions, which although filmed on a tiny budget, were imaginatively staged by director John Mackenzie (of The Long Good Friday). So much so that many a late 70s and early 80s kid endured nightmares after watching, say, one child mashed up under tractor tires or hearing a little girl's screams as the poison she has swallowed causes her to die that evening. Made in 1977 with kids from a Maidenhead school, it is put across with such unseemly gusto that even the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water would have considered it a bit much, but the roll call of dead children in real life at the end reminds you why it existed.
Building Sites Bite, from 1978, was one of the celebrated trilogy of late 70s PIF violence along with Apaches and British Transport's railway safety film The Finishing Line (also '78), and as with that latter effort, took place as a fanciful scenario where a young boy imagines his cousin in a series of avoidable accident scenes. Each time the cousin fails to take heed that he really doesn't need to be on the building site at all, even if he is trying to retrieve his little dog, but like Apaches this ends with a grim list of the kids who have died in precisely the ways the cousin does, and more. This was arranged like a computer game would be in the next decade, with the hapless victim getting six lives to try and beat the site, and dying (crushed, electrocuted, run over by a massive lorry, and so on) every time. Despite the more humorous tone, there was, again, nothing humorous about the message.
Lastly on Disc One, an early piece by avant garde darling Peter Greenaway, who worked at the COI for a decade and a half before branching out on his own with his arthouse feature films. From 1981 it was Insight Zandra Rhodes, a profile of the pink-haired fashion designer which aimed to be as vibrant and vivid as the woman's products.
Disc Two kicked off with Your Children and You from 1946, one of a series of infant-based shorts which sought to explain how to deal with children in a progressive way without frightening any of the audience with jargon or ideas that were too "out there". It adopted a lighthearted mien to get its point across, something many of its followers would do.
Second was Waverley Steps, from 1948, a drama-documentary following the lives of a small handful of natives to Edinburgh - and one tourist, he being important because this half hour's purpose was to attract foreigners to the Scottish capital for a holiday. He is, naturally, treated with warmth and respect. Elsewhere a courtroom is in session (one supposes you could visit the public gallery), a coalman wins on the horses (is betting big with tourists?) and the nightlife includes a trip to the ballet or an evening out listening to jazz (that's more like it). All conveyed with an almost dreamlike mood, the COI would soon apply itself to more practical items, making this a curio of what might have been.
Third was 1948's Charley's March of Time, the Charley in question not the Kenny Everett-voiced cat who was forever getting into scrapes to warn young children on safety, but a rubbery-looking bright young chap devised by animators Halas and Batchelor to put across various governmental messages. Here it was the benefits of the newly introduced Welfare State that Charley was instructed in, illustrated with a bleak picture of what it was like before, then the happy future promised later.
Fourth up was Massingham's What a Life! from the same year, which portrayed a population driven to despair by rationing and the lack of the benefits we were promised on winning the Second World War. The two main characters are so miserable they consider suicide (!), which would scarcely be the subject for humour now, but Massingham was an eccentric and ploughed his own furrow in a popular manner, though questions were nevertheless asked in the House of Commons about his methods in this instance. He was too much of a personality to be angry at, and the short remains an idiosyncrasy to watch now.
Massingham struck again with the following year's Another Case of Poisoning, a warning to implement and sustain food hygiene regulations after a large rise on poisoning cases during the war years. Opening with a doctor quizzing a hospital patient on the circumstances of his admittance (he's a food factory employee) we were subsequently told off in no uncertain terms about the lax standards that had led us to this mass outbreak: in the days of coronavirus, this one still hits home with its orders to wash hands, preparation areas and food, not to mention the relish the piece took in showing how easy it is to be infected by filthy conditions.
Sixth was Riding on Air from 1959, which opens with a businessman in a hurry, running along the pavement, before pointing out to him that while he could alternatively opt for a bus or train, wouldn't he be a lot more happy on a bicycle? Once that is established we are offered a potted history of the transport, told that a fifth of the British population (nine million people then) use a bike, and that British industry build two million of them to export around the world every year. Not bad going for a phenomenon that is as popular now as it was back then, and lightly delivered by this winning quarter hour.
1963's Smoking and You was seventh, one of the most widely-distributed COI films of all time as it broke down the facts about cigarettes and the damage they were doing to the world. Indeed, they still are, but the 1962 Royal College of Physicians' report had been a siren call to the globe that far from what the powerful tobacco companies would tell you, their product was often deadly, or at least physically debilitating, and here we can see the seeds of the department's later PIF scare tactics being sown as precisely what tobacco does to the lungs was described via diagrams and footage of ailing patients. All that and a smoking machine that demonstrated the amount of tar a pack of coffin nails can ooze into the body. This short was an important early blow in the fight against the habit.
The Poet's Eye from 1964 is next, an appeal to the youth of the day, and other interested parties, to discover the works of William Shakespeare by use of stock footage (Sir Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V is seen in extract) and newly filmed clips. This was all to promote the theatre, presented by an expert in the Bard, actor Stephen Murray, and to connect Will's life with the modern day of the 60s.
Then there is Opus, from 1967, more or less an experimental film from the department and one they did not intend to be produced, hoping for a more conventional effort instead. It was crafted to promote Britain in the Montreal Expo 67, and throws up an array of images to show the nation in all its glory, and sometimes not so much glory; it pleased the cognoscenti but baffled the public.
Finally, one of the most notorious of the longer PIFs, Never Go with Strangers from 1971, where the 70s trend for frightening the life out of people to keep them safe was already in full swing. This was considered too disturbing to show on television (unlike Apaches, for instance) and was largely reserved for classrooms where a friendly police officer would show it to the pupils and explain its message and implications. Various scenarios are illustrated where a "stranger" will try and entice a child into their car or to go off with them, and although they are not explicit, the film does make it clear the consequences could be dire. With allusions to fairy tales mixing with sinister men lurking in vehicles or at parks, a generation of kids were terrified into avoiding anyone at all out of the ordinary. Ironically, of course, most abused children are victims of people they know, something this failed to discuss.
There are four extras on this set, shorter PIFs comprising Krish's fire prevention item Searching, one of the most haunting of the 1970s, Grain Drain, also from the 70s and with a chilling, farming theme, Tornado Trailer, a preview of an Air Force recruitment film (Tornado being the plane) and AIDS: Iceberg, one of the famous prevention PIFs of the mid-1980s, this directed by Nicolas Roeg, narrated by John Hurt and soundtracked by Brian Eno, a marvel of getting its message across without being too graphic. All in all, a fine set representing over half a century of British life.