It’s taken me rather a long while to get around to watching Britain Beware!, a documentary about the government-produced public information films that have pervaded our screens and consciousness for decades. It was shown at the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, but for various reasons I was hesitant to see it, fearing the worst.
The full disclosure here is that the public information films in question are the output of the Central Office of Information (COI), a government department where I myself worked for nearly 12 years – so emotional detachment is not really possible in the circumstances.
Not that I worked on any of the films aired here – the vast majority were well before the time I spent at COI. But they were all familiar to me, either as a consumer of the films as a child of the 70s when the Green Cross Code Man and Charlie Says films were inescapable (yes – adverts on the BBC!) or more recently because everyone who worked at COI even years later took great pride in the quality products that the department had been responsible for over the past six decades, which had changed and indeed saved many lives.
Given this attachment to the subject you’ll understand that I felt slightly wary when I saw the bizarre orange motif running through the visual design of this show, and that Adrian Edmondson was presenting it, fearing that the former Young One had been brought in to extract the proverbial out of COI’s archives. And in truth, there’s a lot of stuff in there that can come across very badly to a modern audience, from black and white films in the 40s teaching people to use a handkerchief to stop coughs and sneezes from spreading diseases, to 50s films produces to show to immigrants arriving in the UK teaching them how to queue politely for a bus, and then later films teaching not just children how to cross the road (with Darth Vader-to-be Dave Prowse in command) but also instructing bemused adults how to use new-fangled pedestrian crossings with the help of the entire cast of Dad’s Army. A whole sub-genre of public information films play like mini-episodes of Casualty as we try to spot the next potential cause of fatality to come.
Did we really need a nanny state running around telling us the bleedin’ obvious all the time? Well, actually – yes. They were simpler times and ones of great change that people simply weren’t used to, and the information these public information films imparted over the years really did help whole generations learn how to adapt and survive. If parents today still teach their children to stop before crossing a road, look both ways and keep looking and listening as they walk across then that’s because they will have learned the lessons as kids themselves, from the films.
Of course, times change and in recent years COI’s output got more serious and less mockable, such as income tax deadlines, benefit cheats, motorcycle safety, car tax penalties, quit smoking campaigns and recruitment for the armed services. People have often said “whatever happened to the public information films I remember as a kid?” and the truth is that the films grew up with their audience and became all serious and professional in order to tackle the new serious, big issues in life. They lost their whimsy, and as a result were little represented in Britain Beware! which stuck to the safe 60s and 70s for the most part when we could rely on Jimmy Saville telling us to clunk-click for every trip, Rolf Harris encouraging us to learn to swim, and Donald Pleasance’s voice scaring the holy crap out of us from every playing near water ever, ever again.
Of the few but nonetheless startlingly effective modern examples of COI’s work in the programme, none was more profoundly shocking than seeing excerpts from a film produced not for the public but for the Army, a campaign for soldiers returning from overseas conflicts who – in the euphoria of having survived a war zone – ended up dying all too often in stupid, senseless traffic accidents while they were still trying to adapt back to daily life in civvies. I’d seen it a few years ago as part of an in-house showing of COI’s output for a given year, but as far as I’m aware it had not been been shown publicly before this documentary – and you could see why. Blunt and coarse, speaking to the audience in the manner and language they used to talk to each other, it was a world away from the twee style mocked so easily by Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondely-Warner and Mr Grayson characters. But it also best showed just how well COI could read an audience and find the most effective way of communicating to it, wherever it may be and whatever the message that needed to be imparted.
There was always a lot more to COI than just the public information films, and it’s a shame that the rest of COI’s work is consistently overlooked. All the research and strategy that went behind these films was another large part of COI’s activity, and then there were the other media channels through which government communications were disseminated. It’s a shame that the fabulous work of the radio department wasn’t included here, let alone the publishing unit (or the later digital media/web team, which is where I worked.) The fact is, there is no one in the country who hasn’t watched, listened to, held or read some example of COI’s work during their lives. And they’ll have done so because they needed that information, or because their lives were in some way enriched or even outright saved by it. As marketing jobs went, working at COI to help improve people’s lives sure beat flogging another can of beans to add a few pence to a corporation’s profit margin.
COI is done now, which made watching Britain Beware! rather like watching the obituary of someone you knew well who had just died, someone that you had liked and respected a great deal. Adrian Edmondson actually did a good job of balancing the mickey-taking with making the serious point about the good that these campaigns had done as well. Talking about the iconic 80s “tip of the iceberg” AIDS awareness films, the programme dropped in the fact that the UK has one of the lowest AIDS infection rates in the western world, and suggested that it’s largely thanks to this crucial COI-led public awareness intervention.
It was hard not to feel melancholic as I watched – and also, inevitably, somewhat angry. Just a few weeks before this programme aired, the government had managed to start a panic over fuel shortages that never actually happened. The ill-fated advice to fill up jerry cans was a scenario that would have been funny – right out of Dad’s Army indeed – had it not also been so dangerous and borderline incompetent. Such thoughts struck me again this week as I noticed new NHS adverts, which basically scream at the viewer: “Had a cough for three weeks? THEN YOU’RE GOING TO DIE OF LUNG CANCER!!” Is this the level of communication from the government that they now deem us to be worthy of?
If only the government had some sort of centre of excellent for public communications to which it could turn, a unit with decades of experience in ensuring that essential messages are conveyed properly and to the right people in the right way. It could save so much unnecessary panic and anxiety. As it happened, the jerry can fiasco was the very week that COI closed its doors for the final time – just one more thing, like the BBC Television Centre, that apparently doesn’t fit into the modern world and has no place in our future, but which we may yet come to miss and regret losing nonetheless.
But of course, COI wouldn’t want you to worry about any of this. It would do a poster campaign to reassure you that all will be well. Keep calm, it might say. And carry on.
A range of examples of COI’s output down the years is available on DVDs released by the British Film Institute, which now holds and maintains the COI film archives.