Public information film

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Public information films (PIFs) are a series of government-commissioned short films, shown during television advertising breaks in the United Kingdom. The US equivalent is the public service announcement (PSA).


The films advise the public on what to do in a multitude of situations ranging from crossing the road[1][2] to surviving a nuclear attack.[3] 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. 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,[4] 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 by the Central Office of Information (now closed), and again by private contractors, which were usually small film companies.

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 closed on 30 December 2011 after 65 years, and no longer makes PIFs. However, there are a few companies still distributing PIFs, such as THINK!, Fire Kills, DOE, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), and National Rail. [5]

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.[6]

Public information films produced by the 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.

Notable public information films[edit]

  • Charley Says NO: 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.
  • Apaches: A public information film shown in primary schools about the dangers of playing on farms. This PIF is notorious for being extremely graphic.
  • Robbie: 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.[citation needed]
  • 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 was not 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. Next shown is 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 strange 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 sequence, a terrified kidnapping victim is shown cowering 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 traffic 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 be there to save you, especially on the 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 (Ian Gardiner) 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. However, a remake was done in 2006, with Gardiner reprising the title role.
  • Clunk Click Every Trip: A series of films about the importance of seat belts, similar to the US Crash Test Dummies PSAs.
  • Julie: 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: Narrated by Mick Jones, this 1981 film depicts 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.
  • Market: 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 1990s. 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 does not 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 is done it lies flat on the ground with the AIDS leaflet and the bunch of lilies on it.
  • Searching: 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 by Fire Safety Institute of Britain (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. He 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!'.
  • Moonlighters of the Other Side of the Galaxy: Another animated PIF dating back to the 1990s (originally made by DTI and later remade by Fire Kills in 2000), narrated 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 computer tells them it is 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 Hibling 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 1979, 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, ambulances and the police arrive at the scene at night as Andy remembers Mr. Jones' lecture to the class about dangers of electricity followed by the song "Yesterday's Men" in the background along with the news report of the incident as Andy and his friends mourn for the deceased boys.
  • Keep Flexes Out of Children's Reach (1988): A mother is seen ironing as her baby girl is playing with her toys near the ironing board but as she switches the iron off and turns her back, the tot lifts up a toy truck which gets in the flex. The narrator (a female in the long version, Ray Brooks in the short version) explains that even when switched off, kettles and irons and the flex can still be a danger. The iron falls off the board and the mother hears her baby crying. She turns and picks the girl up, comforting her. We then see that the iron has branded a doll’s head.
  • Scream: A Samaritans advert from 1989, which shows a woman (Saira Todd) that is trying to speak. Her voice is replaced with sounds of electric guitar riffs. Still trying to talk she starts to cry and the camera pulls away from revealing her trapped in a corner. The tagline reads: "THE SAMARITANS - UNDERSTAND".
  • Stone: Blood donation advert from 1989, starring Rowan Atkinson as a doctor talking to a stone about giving blood. He taps the stone twice with his stethoscope and says, 'I don't know, it's like trying to get blood out of a stone'. The stone starts to bleed and Atkinson says, 'Oh thank you!'.
  • Fire Escape Route: An animated 1983 fire safety PIF, in which a father rescues his family from a house fire.
  • Natural Born Smoker: An anti-smoking PIF from 1985, a smoker is seen in a chair smoking a cigarette with a larger nose, self clearing lungs, smaller ears, highly index middle finger and extra eyelids.
  • Shut It Out: A fire safety PIF from 1986, a little girl is chased by an army tank. She opens her bedroom door before the tank fires at her. She enters the room as the tank fires setting everything in her room alight. Her door drops open showing she is safe.
  • Cosmetics Kill Animals: A 1989 cinema PIF for Cruelty Free International (formerly known as British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) , in which a young girl (Angie Hill) is seen putting make up on (e.g. lipstick, eye-shadow, blusher) then the makeup turns her face red. A voice over (Judi Dench) is heard saying: "Everyday thousands of other animals suffer this pain in the name of beauty. Please don't use cosmetics treated this way!" Then the girl lets out a big scream. The song "Smile" or “The Thinner the Air" by Cocteau Twins is played in this PIF.
  • Drug Smuggling – Soft Toy (1992): A man tries to smuggle drugs into a foreign country by hiding them in a soft toy but ends up being found out at airport customs and sent to prison.
  • Independent Television Commission/We’re Here to ITC (1992–1999): A series of PIFs made by the Independent Television Commission ensuring viewers that programmes and commercials were not misleading.
    • One spoofing Australian soaps Neighbours and Home and Away saw a can of lager being placed in front of the camera, the message being that it would be wrong for a programme to spend more time on a product than the plot.
    • Another spoofing The Bill was about prohibition of bad language before the 9pm-watershed.
    • An advert showing characters like an army commando and two people having sex in an identity parade line-up was about appropriate time scheduling.
    • A commercial featuring an elderly couple with salesmen in their living room was about adverts applying to the ITC’s guidelines.
    • One of the PIFs featured a man in a Goldfinger-type situation but with a saw was about making sure scenes disturbing to young children would be shown at an appropriate time.
    • Similarly, there was another where a young boy sees a gunman beat up and shoot his father dead in his living room. Then the gunman turns his attention to the youngster. Fortunately, it turns out to be a TV programme the boy is watching.
    • Turntable Face: A blonde haired man talks about the dangers of nuclear power. Then, the face turns upside down to show a bald headed man with a blonde beard telling us a counterpoint. The two faces argue back and forth while a lady announcer says how it would be easy to give a bias stance on an argument, but the ITC works to make sure you get both sides of the story.
  • Together, We'll Crack It: A PIF from the 1990s about car crime. It starts with three Striped hyenas rummaging through a dark alley and coming across a car. Thinking that the car is unprotected, the Hyenas jump onto it only to hear the sound of a car alarm which scares them off. The same advert is shown again but this time with a car that is not protected. The Hyenas then steal everything that is valuable in the car while a voice-over adds "Car crime. Together, we'll crack it," while an anti-hyena sign appears above the tagline. A similar advert also advertises a car that has been broken as if it still worked (for example, stating a high quality hi-fi which was actually broken). It then gives out a warning about unprotected vehicles.
  • Carbon Monoxide – Heaters: Introduced around 1992-4, a young girl comes home from a night out with friends and turns on her space heater before going to bed. By morning, it looks like she is sleeping but a close up reveals that she is in fact dead.
  • Immunisation: A series of commercials regarding childhood vaccinations made by the health Education Authority.
    • One from 1990 (voice-over John Hurt) showed children playing tag in a school playground as though passing on the various illnesses.
    • One from 1993 (again with Hurt as voice-over) in black and white shows children dancing near a creepy looking tree, with the symptoms being displayed at the bottom of the screen. It ends with echoes of the children singing Ring a Ring o' Roses.
    • Another from the same time, also in black and white shows children punching and shoving a rag-doll, supposedly representing the symptoms of meningitis before the toy is flung into a toy-box.
    • Two devastated parents are at hospital. A number of possibilities are displayed at the bottom of the screen such as traffic accident and drug overdose but it turns out their son has died from measles. Voice-over: Michael Gambon, year: 1994
    • An advert from 1998 (using the song Sanvean by Lisa Gerrard) depicted a baby on a cliff surrounded by lions comparing it to non-vaccinated children.
  • Road Safety – Don't Be a Dummy: A series of mid-nineties commercials, showing a crash test dummy (voiced by Enn Reitel) explaining how to behave safely on the road whilst driving cars and bikes, as well as crossing correctly.
  • Kill Your Speed – Alan and Kate: A tetralogy of PIFs shown on consecutive nights involving a man called Alan who is travelling at 40mph in a 30mph zone, avoiding running down a woman called Kate. The first three instalments end with the tagline “Today he got away with it”. However, on day 4, Kate returns home to collect her sports bag resulting in being that little bit late arriving to cross the road, resulting in being knocked down by Alan.
  • TV Licensing: Late nineties set of commercials with a black comedy twist where people try to save up for something by putting off paying their TV Licence, only to get caught and fined and their original plan to go humorously awry i.e. a couple who wanted to save up to go on holiday in Spain ended up camping in a field beside a power station.
  • Choose Life – Keep Off the Tracks: Dating from 2000, it shows two boys messing around on railway tracks. One throws a spray can and the other goes to fetch it. However, a train approaches. The one lad shouts to his friend of the oncoming danger but does not hear and see it until it is too late. (The slogan is a parody of the Trainspotting tagline.)
  • Could You Live With Shame?: A 2000 anti-drink driving PIF, a young boy is seen playing football in the garden, while a footballer is then seen playing football and celebrating with his friends having a pint of lager. He is then driving in his car drunk, while another car passes him causing him to tumble. His car crashes through the fence in which the young boy is playing. The boy is then crushed to death, and the boy's father runs outside and cries over his dead son's body.
  • COI – Think You Know: From 2002, which starts off with a young boy’s voice, explaining his hobbies. As the camera pans down, we see the voice is coming from a grown man sitting next to a computer. It warns people to be careful as paedophiles use the internet.
  • Keep Your Exits Clear: Again from 2002. A fire safety advertisement showing different people trapped in house fires such as two children cowering in their smoked filled room calling for their father and an elderly woman banging for help on her locked front door during a house fire. The advert received complaints for being terrifying to young children, resulting in a post-7.30pm showing. An amended version aired in March 2004.
  • Food Safety – Turkey: shown for many years at Christmas, courtesy of the Food Standards Agency, where a man fights with a turkey (a man in a costume) while the voice-over explains how to properly cook a turkey. Then the man's wife walks in and joins in the fight.
  • Be Safe with the Tweenies: A series of partially lost short films based on the Children's BBC show Tweenies which focused on dangers children may face. Examples of subjects included staying safe near railway lines, and not to play with electrical wires.[7]
  • Cow: A 2008 public information film made by BBC Cymru and Tredegar Comprehensive School about the consequences of texting and driving. The story is about 17-year-old Cassie "Cow" Cowan who causes a car crash due to texting and driving, and causes four deaths, including her two friends riding as her passengers. Cassie herself nearly dies but is revived. In the aftermath of the crash, Cassie's family ended up being ostracised by the local community and ultimately Cassie was sentenced to seven years in prison for death by dangerous driving.

Cultural references[edit]

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 song Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood made use of the sirens from the Protect and Survive films. The comedian Chris Morris satirised public information films in The Day Today in an episode where there was a constitutional crisis.


  1. ^ Lextronica DaForce (2014-07-19), Public Information Film - Green Cross Code Man 03, retrieved 2016-07-24
  2. ^ "Watch The Balloon online". BFI Player. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  3. ^ "Watch Protect and Survive online". BFI Player. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  4. ^ "Watch Coughs and Sneezes online". BFI Player. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  5. ^ "Home - TV and Radio Fillers". TV and Radio Fillers. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  6. ^ "Charley Says: Volume 2". Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  7. ^ "Be Safe with the Tweenies, Tweenies - Episode guide - BBC - CBeebies". BBC. Retrieved 13 May 2018.

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