Public information film
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Public information films or PIFs are a series of government commissioned short films, shown during television advertising breaks in the UK. The US equivalent is the public service announcement (PSAs).
The films advise the public on what to do in a multitude of situations ranging from crossing the road to surviving a nuclear attack. They are sometimes thought to concern only topics related to safety, but there are PIFs on many other subjects, including animal cruelty, protecting the environment, crime prevention and how to vote in an election or fill in a census form.
Many of these films were aimed at children and were shown during breaks in children's programmes during holidays and at weekends. The general low-budget quality and the infamous static "crackle" before them gave them a Hammer Horror style aura. Some of them were quite terrifying and remained ingrained in the child's psyche well into adulthood, others were quite humorous and used comedy to show the dangers or ridicule the folly of those who ignore them (Joe and Petunia are a good example of a comic PIF). Many of them involved or were narrated by celebrities of the day.
The earliest PIFs were made during the Second World War years and shown in cinemas; many were made by and starred Richard Massingham, an amateur actor who set up Public Relationship Films Ltd when he discovered there was no specialist film company in the area. They were commissioned by the Ministry of Information, and Massingham's work has since gained a cult following for their quirky often humorous tone. After the war PIFs were produced for the Central Office of Information, and again by private contractors, which were usually small film companies, such as Richard Taylor Cartoons.
PIFs were supplied to broadcasters free of charge for them to use whenever they wished. Their usefulness as a cost-free means to fill the gaps in fixed-duration commercial breaks left by unsold advertising airtime led to their being used regularly and extensively in the 60s, 70s and much of the 80s, and consequently, within both the COI and broadcasting companies they were typically known as "fillers". They are still being produced, although the vastly reduced need for broadcasters to turn to third-party filler material to deal with unused airtime during breaks or junctions means they are now only seen rarely, usually in night time spots. Fillers are still produced and distributed by the Cabinet Office by the Filler Marketing team.
Some advertisements and charity appeals have gained the status of honorary PIF among fans, including Cartoon Boy, a 2002 campaign about child abuse produced by the NSPCC, while films such as the 1980s British Gas advertisement about what to do in the event of a gas leak can be considered non-Governmental PIFs.
PIFs have a nostalgic cult following and a DVD was released in 2001 called Charley Says: The Greatest Public Information Films in the World, comprising the contents of two earlier VHS releases. A sequel was released in 2005.
Public Information Films produced by the Britain's COI covered a wide range of subjects. The fillers listed above were for domestic consumption. However COI Films was also commissioned by the British Foreign Office to supply films for overseas use. These films dealt with research and development, British products and the British way of life. They were usually distributed through the diplomatic network but not always. Some films were sold commercially to overseas outlets, mostly television.
One of the darker sides of this effort was the production of a series of films supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Red Army occupation of that country. A fictionalised version of this work can be found in Val Wake's novel When the Lions are Drinking.
Notable public information films
- Charley Says
- An animated series of PIFs with a ginger cat called Charley (whose warning growls were voiced by Kenny Everett) who advised children against various dangers they might encounter in their daily lives.
- Green Cross Code
- A character played by David Prowse who advised children about crossing the road safely. An earlier road safety campaign targeted at children featured the animated squirrel "Tufty", and a Tufty Club for young children was later founded.
- A public information film shown in primary schools about the dangers of playing on farms. This PIF is notorious for being extremely graphic.
- A film based around a child losing his legs after being struck by a train. A modern equivalent, Killing Time was shown in secondary schools during the 1990s but was later replaced for, apparently, being too graphic. Robbie replaced the notorious and extremely graphic The Finishing Line. However, Robbie and The Finishing Line are arguably not strictly PIFs, being produced by British Transport Films.
- Protect and Survive
- A series of films (never shown) advising the British public on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. They would have been shown constantly on all television channels in the build up to a war. Voiced by Patrick Allen.
- Play Safe
- A series of three made in 1978 warning children of the dangers of playing near overhead power lines and electrical sub-stations. The films, narrated by Brian Wilde (of Last of the Summer Wine and Porridge fame), were particularly graphic and frightening, depicting the electrocution of young children.
- Lonely Water
- A 1973 film warning children of the dangers of foolhardy behaviour around lakes and ponds. The film was shot in horror movie style with a menacing black-robed figure, featured a memorably chilling voiceover from Donald Pleasence ("I'll be back-back-back...!) and allegedly frightened and traumatised a generation of children.
- Front Seat Child
- A chilling film from 1977 warning you not to let a small child ride in the front of your car (from the days when it wasn't illegal not to wear a seatbelt). We see a man turn up at a park and learn throughout the course of the film that he took his daughter there in the car one day, she was in the front seat without a seatbelt and she was fatally injured on the way. We hear voiceovers describing how he has identified the body of his daughter and how the car was in good condition, but a van pulled out in front of them, causing the crash. It even mentions the fatal injuries his daughter suffered as a result. To make it even more chilling, we see a young girl on a swing, the result of the man remembering bringing his daughter to the park before the accident, The Narrator concludes "Make sure your child always rides at the back of your car, Strapped in safely as possible, Never let a small child travel in the front.
- Never Go with Strangers
- Narrated by Gary Watson, this 1971 film opens with brief animated sequences depicting the classic stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Aladdin, warning children not to be like the title characters and to avoid putting themselves in danger. Children are encouraged to "think of a stranger's car as danger", and as a recurring theme, a stranger's car flashes red whenever a child is approached, accompanied by a dramatic synthesiser chord. In one memorable sequence, a terrified kidnapping victim is shown cowering on a sofa while the enlarged shadow of an unseen stranger engulfs her.
- Joe and Petunia
- A series of animated PIFs about a couple whose amazing stupidity caused dangerous problems for everyone around them. They appeared in only four PIFs ("Coastguard", "Water Safety – Flags", "Country Code" and "Worn Tyres"), but their popularity grew so quickly that it was decided to kill them off in the last one. However, they were "resurrected" when "Coastguard" was remade in 2007 with updated references: Petunia is reading Hello and listening to an iPod; Joe wears a Burberry cap and phones the desktop PC-using coastguard on his mobile phone.
- Drinking And Driving Wrecks Lives
- A series of 1980s – 1990s PIFs targeting drink-driving offenders. An equally well-known and successful road safety campaign was Clunk Click Every Trip, fronted initially by Shaw Taylor and later by Jimmy Savile.
- Amber Gambler
- A film about the dangers of racing through amber lights before they turn to red.
- Supersafe with SuperTed
- This short 1986 film featured characters from the Welsh animated series SuperTed who were flown to Earth by SuperTed, to teach his friend Spotty how to cross the road safely. A flashback reveals an incident when Spotty was nearly killed by running across the road on the planet Spot (his home), to talk to his sister Blotch. After teaching Spotty the proper procedures for crossing safely, SuperTed then warns the viewer that he "can't always be there to save you, especially on planet Earth". The animated "setting" for the film was based on Castle Street in Cardiff city centre, Wales, with Cardiff Castle as a backdrop.
- Reginald Molehusband
- A man who demonstrated the correct way to park safely. His reverse parking was "a public danger", bets were laid on his performance and people came from all round to watch, until the day he got it right – "Well done! Reginald Molehusband, the safest parker in town." This film is now classified as missing and is not in the archives of either the COI or the private company, which now owns most of its archive footage, although an audio recording still exists.
- Clunk Click Every Trip
- A series of films about the importance of seat belts, similar to US Crash Test Dummies PSAs.
- A film about the importance of rear seat belts, which ran for 5 years between 1998 and 2003 with a return in 2007, and was so successful it was adapted for broadcast in France. It was updated with the Think! logo in 2001.
- Carry a Knife, Lose Your Life
- A series of short adverts and films created to discourage people from carrying knives and to show the consequences of knife crime. The advert starts with two identical-looking people talking about an ambition in life they both share, then end with "But I never thought...". The ad then shows one person having reached their goal and pursuing a career based on their ambitions, whilst the other person explains how they thought would never get into trouble for carrying or using a knife.
- Say No to Strangers
- A 1981 film depicting a young girl who is approached after school by a stranger, but declines to go with him; this is followed by an extended sequence showing what might have happened had the girl accepted, followed by shorter segments stressing the importance of children not placing themselves in dangerous situations and watching out for their friends. The footage is interspersed with shots of the arcade games Phoenix and Scramble, used to show if the child in question made the right or wrong decision, and also features a brief clip of the "Little Red Riding Hood" animated sequence previously seen in an earlier PIF with a similar theme, Never Go with Strangers.
- An anti-piracy short produced by FACT, appearing at the beginning of many commercially released VHS tapes in the UK during the middle and late 1990's. A man attempts to return a dodgy copy of Trainspotting to a market-stall, complaining that the sound and picture are rubbish. The seller tries to deflect these concerns, suggesting that the customer is having trouble understanding the actors' Scottish accents and his tracking controls are set incorrectly. A narrator reminds viewers that "most pirate videos are unwatchable, and there's no comeback" before the seller then refuses a refund, saying that the customer doesn't have a receipt. The customer walks off without his tape, which the seller then immediately tries to sell again to another passer-by, with the ending tagline "Pirate Videos: Daylight Robbery."
- AIDS – Don't Die of Ignorance
- Two sets of PIFs from 1987 told by John Hurt, about the dangers of AIDS. One showing the iceberg at sea until the camera pans down into the sea to see an embossed AIDS Text on the side. Another one when a man is engraving AIDS on the monolith, when it's done is lies flat on the ground with the AIDS leaflet and the bunch of lilies on it.
- Fire safety film created by the BFI from 1974, which is shown when the camera goes inside a burnt house and echoes of a family screaming are heard as we look around, when we reach inside the bedroom and to the wardrobe. The clip burns up to reveal the text "KEEP MATCHES AWAY FROM CHILDREN" with the voice over concludes 'Please keep matches away from children'.
- Frances the Firefly
- Animated PIF told by Richard Briers dating back to the 1990s (remade by Fire Kills in 2000) about a young firefly named Frances. Because she's too young, her tail does not glow and she feels sad. Meanwhile a naughty cockroach named Cocky Roach, shows her a box of matches that was left by his mum on the kitchen table and gives one to her. She lights the match and flies around with it, until the flame burns her and she drops the match. The match causes a fire, and Frances' wings were badly burned. Following an emergency meeting led by King Chrysalis, the insects rebuild the buildings. It ends with Frances being told not to play with matches, and Cocky Roach being banished from King Chrysalis' kingdom and is found hiding amongst the litter bins in towns and villages, never to dare show his face again. The narrator concludes, 'Remember – Never play with matches!'.
- Another animated Fire Kills PIF, told by Alexei Sayle, about two aliens called Biblock and Hoblock going for a stroll one day, and find a 'strange object' lying in the moon dust. Back at the Moon City, they ask their computer what it is. The computers tells them it's a lighter and they are very dangerous, children must not touch them. Later at night Hoblock goes out and secretly brings the lighter back to the Moon City. Hoblock plays with the lighter, which sets the Moon City on fire. It ends with Hoblock building the computer back together again. Because everyone was so cross with Hoblock for what he did, no-one came to visit him again, apart from his little sister Hiblick bringing him sandwiches every day. Hoblock repeats the same warning to her every day, 'NEVER PLAY WITH LIGHTERS!', then Hiblick replies 'AND NEVER PLAY WITH MATCHES EITHER!'. The narrator concludes, 'AND GROWN-UPS – KEEP LIGHTERS AND MATCHES AWAY FROM CHILDREN!'.
- Don't leave your children alone
- Fire safety film from 1960s, which is shown when the girl narrates about last Christmas about losing her brother as the camera looks at the Christmas tree then to the picture of a boy and a girl and then in the hallway up the staircase and in the girl's bedroom to reveal the girl sleeping alone in the dark with the narrator concludes 'Fire can break out at any time. This Christmas, don't leave your children alone in the house' as the tagline "DON'T LEAVE YOUR CHILDREN ALONE" appears.
- Powerful Stuff
- Electricity safety film from 1988, which shows of a group of boys, Darren, his brother Tom and Andy walking to school together. On the way they set off a gang of teenagers who chase them all the way to an electricity substation. Tom spots a football in there which Darren tries to break in and get, but a reluctant Andy talks him out of it; instead, they play football with other friends to school. Once they enter the class, Mr. Jones who works for the electricity board, teaches them the dangers of electricity like touching overhead cables, being careless around cables and climbing pylons, showing clips of what happened when people ignored or did not know the danger that could be present in the situation. Darren ignores all of this by listening to his Walkman and daydreaming of going on a motorcycle that his friend was using earlier in the beginning. On the way back from school, the boys see the friend's motorcycle. They come over until Darren sees his friend's ball is deflated, thus making Darren remember the football in the substation and takes Tom with him. Darren breaks through a fence while Tom keeps lookout. Darren runs up to the ball, and as Andy sees the deflated ball he realises that Darren has broken inside the substation to get the football. Darren throws the football but it gets him electrocuted. Tom runs in to help him but gets electrocuted as well, much to the horror of Andy and his friends. Later, the fire brigade, ambulance and the police arrive at the scene at night as Andy remembers Mr. Jones' lecture to the class about dangers of electricity followed by yesterday's men in the background along with the news report of the incident as Andy and his friends mourn for the deceased brothers.
A number of musical artists have been heavily influenced by the analogue, overdriven sound of British PIFs, including Boards of Canada and most artists on the Ghost Box Records label, especially The Advisory Circle, whose most recent album, Other Channels directly references or samples many PIFs, including Keep Warm, Keep Well. Additionally, their debut album features a few reprises with the suffix "PIF". Another example of PIF influence in music was that of the song Charly by The Prodigy, from 1991, which heavily sampled the meows of Charley Cat. The comedian Chris Morris satirised Public information films in The Day Today in an episode where there was a constitutional crisis.
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (December 2009)|
- Twitter @FillerMessages
- 625's Introduction to PIF's
- Information about DVD compilations: "Charley Says" Volume 1 and "Charley Says" Volume 2
- National Archives exhibit of public information films
- The Message Clicks – First of a series of BBC articles about public information films