The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 395

As well as this regular blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from Issue 395, dated August 2020.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology

“I am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. Ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool…”

A merciless instigator of childhood drownings, drifting silently through building sites and beauty spots alike, this sinister spectre made a profound impact on the 1970s childhood. The central character of a 90-second Public Information Film produced to deter cagoul-clad tearaways from high-jinks around stagnant pools and dystopian duckponds, he now weaves his dark magic on a new Blu-ray collection from the British Film Institute.

There have been collections of Public Information Films before, of course. Some released by the BFI themselves, and also by Network – whose comprehensive Charley Says DVDs gathered together almost 300 of the unsettling, minute-long shorts that peppered our TV schedules for decades. Lonely Water aside, this new set – The Best Of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films – largely eschews these short, sharp shocks for longer, more ambitious productions, comprising 23 films produced by the Orwellian-sounding Central Office of Information between the 1940s and 1980s. It’s an immersive, languorous insight into a long-vanished Britain.

Predictably, it is the 1970s films that provide the real trauma. Apaches, from 1977, is the most notorious inclusion here, a 27-minute agricultural bloodbath in which six children, lost in their own Wild West-inspired fantasy world, descend on a rain-sodden farm and are systematically picked off by a combination of tractors, slurry pits and rat poison. It’s the dark side of Farming Outlook; Sam Peckinpah directing for the Children’s Film Foundation.

Cut from similar cloth is 1978’s Building Sites Bite, in which sensible Paul and Jane are visited by posh-but-dim cousin Ronald. “I reckon he’s a twit…” muses Paul, and employs comprehensively grim methods to prove it. Imagining himself and his sister as silver-suited cosmic overlords, he inflicts multiple imaginary deaths on his cravat-sporting nemesis by transporting him (via a garden shed TARDIS) to a succession of deserted building sites. Here, exposed electrical cables and collapsing walls repeatedly nudge Ronald from an increasingly thankless mortal coil. Connoisseurs of similarly bleak 1970s oddness may also enjoy Drive Carefully Darling, in which Colin Baker, John Challis and Christopher Owen play lab-coated Numskulls, respectively operating the Brain, Ego and Memory of a reckless driver caught in a fatal car crash. Baker’s despairing attempts to contact the rest of the dying body (“Brain to eyes! For God’s sake, come in!”) are genuinely chilling.

Less traumatic but equally redolent of their respective eras, the set’s earlier films offer tantalising glimpses of a promised future that never quite materialised. 1952’s Brief City dares to imagine a bright, almost sci-fi existence; its Festival of Britain-inspired roam around London’s transformed South Bank including glimpses of the floating, rocket-like ‘Skylon’ sculpture that almost pointed the way to the Space Age. Similarly exciting visions are dangled in 1965’s Design For Today, a wordless film collage of a life filled with the new wave of poptastic British design, cruelly promising a future of E-Type Jaguars parked outside gleaming skyscrapers and plush apartments grooving to the sounds of funky Hammond organ workouts.

This combination of thwarted utopias and childhood unsettlement has provided untold inspiration for the legion of 21st century artists whose work features regularly in this column, and this immaculate collection acts almost as a set text. It epitomises a pivotal moment in mid-20th century Britain, when the plummy-voiced agents of these state-funded films graduated from reassuring, post-war optimism to a grim acceptance that death and danger were omnipresent. There are fascinating diversions: 1944’s Children of The City looks at Scotland’s approved school system, and Insight: Zandra Rhodes is COI stalwart Peter Greenaway’s revealing glimpse into the life of everyone’s favourite pink-haired fashion designer.

But the collection’s concluding presentation is peak hauntedness. Never Go With Strangers, from 1971, alerts unsuspecting infants to the dangers of abduction with a gentle sternness that is both chilling and heartbreaking. “Most people are good and kind, but there are some that want to hurt children,” it warns, as a procession of smiling, sinister loners attempt to lure unsure poppets away from their favourite playgrounds and funfairs. Shown extensively to terrified children in parquet-floored school halls, it’s a stark reminder that the COI – for all its antiquated charm – played an important role. Not just in helping to define an era of British pop culture, but in placing a gently protective arm around the vulnerable. The fact that it frequently did so with such inventiveness, imagination and sheer cinematic flair is perfectly encapsulated by this hugely evocative collection.

The Best Of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films is available now from www.bfi.org.uk