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 (now closed), 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 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s, 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. The COI has since been ceased on December 30, 2011 after 65 years, and no longer makes PIFs. However, there are a few companies still distributing PIFs, such as; THINK!, Fire Kills, DOE, NSPCC, and National Rail. 
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.
The cult following includes YouTube channels that specialise in reviewing (typically called a 'PIFReview') and/or compiling public information films and public service announcements. These usually involve the channel owner (either speaking on webcam or through a written review, usually via the YouTube video description) reviewing an assortment of PIFs and PSAs, of which they frequently give a "Scare factor" rating out of 10 (e.g. '10' being the most scary, to '1' being the least scary). There are many YouTube channels that specialise in such reviews, compilations and countdowns. Some of these channels are; Applemask, PeachyPeachyPanda (or just known as 'Peachy'), Easportsbig899, Love The PIF, Thelolmonster, TheGRVOfLightning, Ben GH's AD Reel and The PIF guy. Another well-known YouTube channel that specialises in countdowns of public information film (PIF) and public service announcement (PSA) attire, is a channel pseudonymously named 'HelloImAPizza', of which includes countdowns of Top 50: Scariest PIFs, Top 50: Scariest PSAs, and a variety of branched videos including Top 40: Scariest Anti-Smoking Commercials, Top 50: Scariest Anti-drugs PSAs, and Top 50: Scariest PSAs from Australia and New Zealand. As of January 2016, the channel has accumulated over 28,500 subscribers and over 15,000,000 video views. 'HelloImAPizza' also has an accompanying blog dedicated to reviewing each of the entries featured in the countdowns, appropriately named 'HelloImABlog'.
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
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 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 too much 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