A boy sits atop a railway bridge, surveying the scene of the tracks below, and thinking on the stern warnings from the headmaster at school assembly that day where he ordered the pupils to stay away from railway lines and never to play anywhere near them - they are not a sports field. But what if they were, ponders the boy, what if there was a sports day held on the tracks while the trains were still running? What would that be like?
Absolute carnage, according to this, and according to anyone with any way sensible reasoning, but in the mid-nineteen-seventies in Britain there were increasing numbers of children falling victim to accidents, many fatal, thanks to their lure of the railways. These were not over-adventurous trainspotters, these were kids showing off with the bravado of naïve youth, the kind who were blowing their fingers off come Bonfire Night or drowning in foolhardy swimming excursions or getting run over because they were not stopping, looking and listening when they crossed the road.
The British Government responded by flooding the decade with public information films, some as little as a few seconds long, others as much as half an hour or so, those longer efforts to be shown, often with police present, in schools, town halls or eventually on television, as The Finishing Line was – to much outcry. It was the brainchild of the C.O.I.'s most inspired and edgy talent John Krish, who devised shorts both comical (the pickpocketing warning Snatch of the Day) or disturbing (the fruit-destroying road safety metaphor Peach and Hammer). He had a long career in both fiction and documentary but seemed to be most enthused by mixing the two.
This, for British Transport Films, was probably his P.I.F. magnum opus, that double whammy of ramming the point home and disturbing the target audience into thinking twice before misbehaving or being careless. The sports day itself takes the form of four events of increasing carnage, all while parents look on approvingly and a brass band parps away and the teachers order the pupils about, essentially sending them to be maimed and slaughtered instead of looking after them as they are supposed to. This callousness on the part of the adults, and the enthusiasm the children have for launching themselves into the worst possible actions (there are points to be won for each colour-coded team, chalked up on a scoreboard), are what gave the piece its power.
Well, that and all the blood they used, the bodies of the kids (all volunteers from a local school) smashed when the trains hit them, or in a turnabout, the passengers and driver bleeding from serious head injuries when the kids throw rocks at a passing carriage. The message was clear even if the language wasn't: don't be a fucking idiot, kids! That sense of invincibility all youngsters had was played upon with the same savagery as its contemporary Apaches, the farm safety film, demonstrating it was nothing but an illusion and you were far more vulnerable than you ever believed. Little wonder that there were complaints from parents when their offspring couldn't sleep at night after seeing them both, and The Finishing Line was eventually withdrawn, a milder item, Robbie, replacing it. There were rumours it had been destroyed, but it did show up on a DVD compilation eventually, and its full impact can still be appreciated. From an era when frightening the younglings into behaving was perfectly legitimate.