Joe and Petunia

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Joe and Petunia are characters from a well known series of public information films in the UK. They appeared in four films which ran between 1968 and 1973, and they became popular so quickly that it was decided to kill them off in the final short Worn Tyres Kill in order to prevent public demand for their reappearance. They also appeared in a much earlier public information film which showed them learning to use a pelican crossing, but it is noticeably different from the others in the series.

The Joe and Petunia series was made by Nicholas Cartoons, also responsible for the 1978 television series Willo the Wisp. The films were animated and featured Joe, a tiny little man in pinstripes, and Petunia, his enormous wife who wore a hat and sunglasses and could often be seen licking an ice cream noisily. Voices were provided by Wendy Craig as Petunia, later replaced by Brigit Forsyth for the last film, and Peter Hawkins as Joe. In each film, they caused danger with their unbelievable stupidity, advising the public on what not to do in a similar situation.

The public information films these characters appeared in were:

  • Coastguard - Joe and Petunia are on holiday, enjoying a picnic on a clifftop. Joe is watching the sea through binoculars when he sees a man in trouble on his boat, but assumes that, like them, he is simply enjoying himself and, when he struggles to stay afloat, Joe waves back ("Lovely day, in't it?"). Eventually, the man shouts to them "HELP! DIAL 9-9-9 AND ASK FOR THE COASTGUARD!" Joe reads these instructions in a speech bubble above the man's head, and, realising what's happening, he rushes to a phone box to summon help. The man holds on to the end of the speech bubble and floats out of the water, reminding the audience "If you see a boat you think may be in distress, dial 9-9-9 and ask for the coastguard!"
  • Flags - Still at the seaside, Joe sees a beautiful mermaid in the water and wants to go in, but Petunia tells him he can't because there is a sign nearby telling people not to swim. They move down the beach, but it's not safe there either, because a red flag is on display, warning that the sea is too rough. Finally, they find an area patrolled by lifeguards, and Petunia tells Joe it is safe to swim now, but having seen the lifeguard swimming away with the mermaid, Joe has changed his mind.
  • Country Code - While on a country walk, Joe and Petunia stop for a rest and discuss their walk, with Joe throwing rocks from a wall nearby: They have left tracks all through a corn field, have released some cows through a gate Joe opened, marked "Private" and their dog is now chasing sheep in the field behind them. Just then, one of the stones Joe throws shatters a bottle, much to his delight. They then see a farmer with a purple face (which they attribute to "all that country air") and think he is doing a country dance as he jumps up and down in fury. Petunia remarks that he doesn't look friendly (to which Joe says "Can't be anything we've done"), and they leave. The farmer looks out at the trail of damage they have left, and sighs "When folk go out to the country, why oh why can't they follow The Country Code?"
  • Worn Tyres (or tires) - The last and darkest film featuring Joe and Petunia. On a mountain drive, Petunia sees a notice board advising that "Worn Tyres Kill", and repeatedly asks Joe whether he has checked their tyres. He tries to evade the question, then says they're not worn, they're "a bit smooth". Petunia is relieved, but then he skids and crashes the car; the cartoon image then changes to a shot of a real car accident. A caption states "WORN TYRES KILL" as we hear faint voices repeating the words from the start of the film: "Nice view up here, Petunia." "Yes, very nice, Joe." It implies that Joe and Petunia are indeed dead and have gone to Heaven.

The "Coastguard" film was shown on UK screens for a limited run from May 2006 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Central Office of Information. It was digitally remastered and "updated" to give it a more modern look - in the new film, Joe has a mobile phone, Petunia listens to an iPod and the coastguard now uses a computer.

Relation to Harry Potter franchise[edit]

This is, according to Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, where she got the name for Harry's Aunt Petunia. "Vernon and Petunia were so-called from their creation, and never went through a number of trial names, as so many other characters did," Rowling writes. "‘Petunia’ is the name that I always gave unpleasant female characters in games of make believe I played with my sister, Di, when we were very young. Where I got it, I was never sure, until recently a friend of mine played me a series of public information films that were shown on television when we were young (he collects such things and puts them on his laptop to enjoy at leisure). One of them was an animation in which a married couple sat on a cliff enjoying a picnic and watching a man drowning in the sea below (the thrust of the film was, don’t wave back - call the lifeguard). The husband called his wife Petunia, and I suddenly wondered whether that wasn’t where I had got this most unlikely name, because I have never met anybody called Petunia, or, to my knowledge, read about them. The subconscious is a very odd thing. The cartoon Petunia was a fat, cheery character, so all I seem to have taken is her name." (Cited from Pottermore.com)


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