Patrick Russell, the BFI, Public Information Films and the COI

A clanking 16mm projector, a freezing cold parquet floor, ominously dimmed lights and perhaps even a uniformed policeman striding purposefully into the school hall. The inevitable augers of that most traumatising of school experiences: the screening of a Public Information Film. These crackling, washed-out warnings about the dangers of railway lines, busy roads and stagnant ponds became part of the fabric of our everyday 1970s unsettlement, and the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water joined the ever-increasing roster of nightmarish spectres seemingly queuing at the bottom of our beds on a ghoulish rota.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all was Apaches, from 1977. This 27-minute compendium of agricultural atrocities sees six children, lost in a very 1970s fantasy world of “cowboys and injuns”, routinely losing their lives on a dank, rain-sodden farm; picked off in turn by tractors, slurry pits and rat poison alike. It was screened in my school hall in the late 1970s, with the extravagantly-bearded Mr Douglas on hand to answer predictably tremulous questions afterwards. Like all Public Information Films from this golden era of disquiet, Apaches was produced by the Orwellian-sounding Central Office Information, a state body founded in 1946 to deliver these chilling missives to a largely unsuspecting public.

The British Film Institute have collected 23 vintage Public Information Films, including Apaches, onto a deluxe two-disc Blu-ray set, entitled The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films. I spoke to BFI curator and box set producer Patrick Russell about the contents of the set, and the history of the Central Office of Information. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: I’m very much of the generation that was shown films like Apaches in a darkened school hall from a 16mm projector. Was your own relationship with Public Information Films along similar lines?

Patrick: In that specific case, the relationship is identical! Seeing Apaches screened in the classroom is a very salient memory of mine. I was born in 1972, so I’m sure I couldn’t have seen it in 1977 when it was first released, but it did the rounds in rural areas for a lot of years. I reckon I probably saw it in 1979 or 1980, when I was seven or eight. And it’s a pretty indelible memory, to be honest. An official of some sort came along, presumably from the farm safety advisory service or some equivalent body, and the film was screened from a 16mm projector to a classroom full of children my age, in North Devon.

I remember it as being an extraordinarily traumatic experience. I’m not making this up, I swear to you… I vividly remember it. The terror through which we all went actually culminated in one boy developing a nosebleed during the screening. So my main memory of this event is seeing this poor boy being haplessly led out of the screening with a trail of blood behind him on the floor!

So you think this was an entirely psychosomatic nosebleed?

Well, who knows what the cause and effect relationship was? But he certainly had a nosebleed during a film that traumatised us all! So it’s a memory that’s drenched in blood: what happens on the screen is quite horrific given the age of the film’s target audience, and what was happening offscreen was pretty horrific as well. It was very traumatic, and I have whimsically wondered since whether my subsequent career in film archiving was somehow subliminally influenced by this. [Laughs]

But, more broadly than that, anyone of my generation brought up in the 1970s and 80s would have seen Public Information Films. Mainly not in that setting of a formal screening: more likely in those 30-45 second slots on TV. Those short films were screened to our generation more than any other content – they were, basically, the most-repeated content on television. So yeah, they’re very much part of the texture of our early lives, in a way that won’t apply to my kids’ generation.

Yes, one of the most traumatic aspects of these films is that we literally had no control over when we saw them. We watched TV constantly, and they would simply appear without warning. We’d often go straight from a rather fluffy piece of children’s television to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, killing youngsters in stagnant ponds.

Exactly. There were three TV channels through the 1970s, and these films were very short, so they had a captive audience. Literally a captive audience in the case of school screenings. Unless you started bleeding profusely – in which case you would be led out! Therefore, by definition, they were a very powerful piece of communication that could potentially reach everybody, quite easily. 

On this new set, you generally shy away from those shorter films in favour of the COI’s longer, more ambitious productions. What was behind that decision?

I think a few things fed into it. This is a Blu-ray, so it’s got to be cinematic: stuff that people can sit back, press play, and be enveloped by. There’s also the issue that a lot of the very short films are widely available. Often not legally, but they are! It’s not difficult to find a lot of COI fillers on Youtube, in varying levels of quality. And we’ve published some of those on our BFI player as well, which tend to be higher quality than the Youtube channels! So these very short films are particularly suited to online consumption, and are widely available online, whereas the longer films are perhaps more suited to Blu-ray. We started with people’s familiarity with the COI through those 1970s Public Information Film shorts, and used them effectively as a gateway drug into a much wider and more varied world of the COI.

Yes, the longer films show really show off different sides of the COI. It’s easy for our generation to associate Public Information Films with those famously traumatic warnings about death and danger, but I assume – in the early days at least – that wasn’t the entire remit of the COI, because the 1940s and 1950s films on this set are actually rather gently instructional… or even simply a “look at life”.

Yeah, the COI throughout its life had a broader remit than you might guess. It’s come to be associated in the public’s mind with the road safety films of the 1970s and 80s… and there was even quite a lot of variation within those, too. Some of them were terrifying, but some of them were humorous… and the famous Charley Says adverts, for example, were rather friendly. So even within that sphere, they could be very varied.

Basically, the COI was the successor to the MOI – the Ministry of Information – which was in existence during World War II. As a ministry, it was a government department, so it was quite powerful in terms of setting policy for information, as well as actually delivering it. And of course, the context for that was wartime propaganda, and information to be delivered to the Home Front. So they made propaganda films that were seen at home and abroad, interpreting the war effort, but they also made Public Information Films for cinemas… about food rationing, for example.

In 1946, the MOI was shut down and replaced by the COI, and the wording change is significant – it was an office, not a ministry. Not a government department. It was the state’s advertising agency, if you like. Any part of government that had a message that it wanted to communicate would take that message to the COI, and the COI would turn it into a project that would be delivered. And it didn’t only deliver films: it was responsible for posters, radio messages, etc… although the films are the best-known now.

So a government department would say “Hello COI, we need to have a film about…” Well, let’s take an example from the box set, Smoking And You, from 1963. “We’re the Ministry of Health, the Royal College of Physicians’ report about the dangers of smoking has been published, and we want to communicate this to secondary school children. We’re going to spend X amount of money on it, so that’s the budget. What can you do for us?”

And the COI would take that brief, and say “We could make a film that costs X amount of money, we’ll distribute it in the following ways, and we suggest the style of the film should be as follows…” And the COI, once the commissioning department had given them the green light, would then contract a production company to make the film. So it was quite a bureaucratic process really, and – getting back to your original question – in a sense, its remit was to communicate whatever the state wanted it to communicate, and that would come from different departments of government. Smoking And You, for example, came from the Ministry of Health, but other commissions could come from the Education Department, the Home Office, and so on. And actually – and this is the least-known part of the COI’s work – a lot of it came from the Foreign Office, and these were films not intended to be seen in the UK at all. There were intended to promote Britain abroad.

So the COI was as varied as the state itself. Obviously it tended not to do things that were very political… although it did occasionally get involved with things that were politically controversial, for example the Protect and Survive campaign… which was not ever fully actualised, but it was planned for. But most of it was apolitical stuff that the state needed to communicate to either the general public, or to targeted groups within the general public. Or to people abroad. Sorry, that was quite a long answer to your question!

I guess it’s all just very reflective of an era when information as a whole was less available than it is now. It’s very easy to watch a film like Your Children And You, essentially a basic guide to bringing up children, and find it rather patronising to modern eyes. But then they didn’t have Mumsnet in 1946…

Absolutely. I mean, it was a multi-media age to an extent: there was the cinema, and a world of non-theatrical screenings that the COI definitely plugged into, as well as newspapers, radio and magazines. So it was a multi-media world, but the “multi” was by no means as vast and diverse as it is now! One effect of that, I guess, is that messages from the government had greater cut-through than they would now. They were competing with fewer other information sources. And I guess another observation you could make, and this is debatable, is whether people were less sceptical or cynical about official institutional messages at that time than they would be now. Obviously you could play that debate out, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

I was very much taken with the spirit of optimism that comes over in the 1950s and 1960s films. It’s a very post-war feeling… and it all seems to be enscapsulated in films like Brief City from 1952, with its glorious vision of a futuristic South Bank, and the brand new Skylon sculpture. And then Design For Today, from 1965, almost shows us a “lost future”… it’s a brilliant, jazzy, pop-art vision of swinging life in a beautiful high-rise apartment. Is that kind of glimpse into the British psyche of these respective eras a big part of the appeal of these films?

Absolutely. You can respond to these films at a very simple level – nostalgic, humorous, whatever – and that’s fine, but you can analyse them on lots of other levels as well. And given that these films show us how the government was positioning itself, and its messages to the public, they’re bound to tell us a lot about those eras… about things that the government is consciously trying to tell us, and things that it’s unconsciously reflecting.

So Brief City and Design For Today are both very good examples. They’re not that far apart in time from each other, and yet they’re redolent of totally different decades in terms of their aesthetic, their tone, and what they suggest. But as you say, what they do have in common is optimism. Now of course the government, for the most part, wouldn’t want to be putting out pessimistic messages – although you could make lots of counter-arguments to that, and pessimism creeps into some other films on this set! But yeah… Brief City shows The Festival of Britain. Which was a slightly artificial event, but it was designed to be a symbolic moment of national renewal, and I think what I draw from that film is something genuinely authentic and sincere. Perhaps I’m being naive, but it does give you the feeling that the people who made it, and the people who might see it, at least had half a belief in what it’s saying and showing.

Design For Today… now that’s a very zeitgeisty film, isn’t it? It’s Swinging London, basically! Made by Hugh Hudson, who went on to be a kind of enfant terrible of the advertising world before, for a while, becoming an extremely successful feature film director. And it shares the optimism of Brief City, but stylistically it’s so different. It’s not just the fact that it’s in colour, there’s also the emphasis on fast cutting, the absence of a commentary, the whole design theme… it’s neo-Modernism, basically. So absolutely, I completely agree… I’d be wary of naive readings of these films, where you don’t penetrate underneath and try to understand the anxieties, insecurities and the contradictions that might underlie what’s happening on the surface. But at the same time you absolutely have to look at what is on the surface, and understand what that says about the times in which they were made. And I think both of those films are particularly valuable reflections of their era.

Can we talk about those 1970s films in particular? By modern standards, they seem incredibly shocking: Apaches, obviously, but there’s also Building Sites Bite, in which two children repeatedly lure their cousin into a succession of grisly deaths, to great comic effect. I can’t imagine them being shown to such a young audience on 21st century television…

Yes, I tend to agree. That audience does get access to shocking content by other means, but I don’t think – in the context of public information – you’d get those films today. I think that would probably create a backlash in the media that would be unwelcome to those who had commissioned them.

Did that not happen at the time? Were eyebrows never raised in the 1970s?

They were sometimes. The one I’m most aware of is not actually a COI, it was a film made by British Transport Films called The Finishing Line. Do you know that one?

Yes, it’s horrible.

It’s very much from the same position, and from the same point in time, as those COI films. It was intended to discourage children from playing on railway lines, and the extraordinary narrative device that the film-makers came up with – to create a sort of surreal shock aversion therapy that I think it shares with Apaches – was a school sports day based around playing dangerous games on the tracks. And it results in massive amounts of death and injury. With that particular film, I have studied its reception, and it was hugely controversial. There was a debate about it on Nationwide, because some parents were so shocked by it. And it was eventually withdrawn.

I’m not aware of there having been such a debate about Apaches, and I don’t remember that I went home – after being traumatised that day – and said anything about it to my parents! And I suppose Dark and Lonely Water is a little bit different… it’s taking place in a dreamlike genre, to an extent, and using the power of metaphor.

What makes Apaches or The Finishing Line scary is that they mix the dreamlike world with a realist world that’s particularly uncomfortable. One of the extraordinary things about Apaches is… well, the storyline of the film is basically a bunch of kids on a farm, playing cowboys and indians. And one by one, they’re killed in horrible ways – by a combine harvester, by drowning in the slurry pit, etc. I think you described it in your Fortean Times review as being like the Children’s Film Foundation directed by Sam Peckinpah, and I would probably throw a little bit of Ingmar Bergman in there as well! But the really curious thing about it is that, each time one of them dies, they carry on playing there…

Yes! Stop going back to the same farm!

Exactly! So it’s a sort of fable, in a way. It’s a fairytale, but a fairytale that’s taking place in a very recognisable world. It’s exactly like the farms where I grew up in Devon, with kids just like me. So with that film, what I find disturbing is the mixture of metaphor and reality. Whereas Dark and Lonely Water is also very scary… but in a way, it exists within its own world. Rather than mixing its own world with the real world. Which is why I think Dark and Lonely Water was regularly shown on TV, whereas Apaches was intended more for specialist screenings. Although I believe it was shown sometimes on TV, by ITV franchises in rural areas.

I’ve come across people that have seen it on TV, but I don’t remember that myself.

I think it was probably shown on Westward TV, the ITV region where I grew up… or Anglia TV, for example. But it wouldn’t have been shown at all in London, where it was just totally irrelevant. This question of targeting was quite important to the COI. Some films were intended for the widest possible reach, basically the entire UK public, but other films were very precisely targeted – particularly towards certain age groups, but also towards sectors of the economy, and so on.

Again, this is why I say… you can enjoy these films on a very simple level, but when you dig into them, they’re quite complex things to analyse. They’re a little bit different to feature films and TV because they’re not just about entertaining and engaging: the government wouldn’t spend money on these films if they didn’t have a specific purpose in mind. So trying to understand what that purpose was, and also trying to investigate – or, in some cases, guess – how that purpose manifested itself through the production, from the original Civil Service requirement to the film-maker who actually made the film on the ground, is an endlessly fascinating subject.

Was there an element, though, of these films needing to work as short films in their own right? The one that I particularly loved on the set was Drive Carefully, Darling. As a Doctor Who fan, it was such a thrill to see Colin Baker, John Challis and Christopher Owen – the Earthman from ‘Meglos‘! – all in the same production, in such an engaging and actually rather chilling piece of film-making.

Absolutely! Now, interestingly, that film was directed by John Krish, who also directed The Finishing Line. I recommend anyone who doesn’t know about his career to dig into it… he made some brilliant social documentaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had a brief career in feature films in the mid-to-late 1960s, and then in the 1970s his main focus was making COI and other information films. He did these longer pieces, like Drive Carefully, Darling, but he also did a lot of thirty-second jobs as well. As well as commercial advertising.

To me he’s a good example of how the story of the COI relates to the story of the British film industry. The story of the British film industry is very complex and multifarious, and it’s always a mistake to just look at it in terms of feature films… and then the rest. Especially since the British feature film has always lumbered from periods of triumph to periods of crisis. Throughout that time, you’ve also got people making television, commercials, industrial and educational films… and people making COI Public Information Films. And the COI was, I think, a very important component of the British film industry. It provided work and money to a lot of directors, cinematographers, editors, writers and actors. It’s an important part of the story of the moving image in Britain.

And Drive Carefully, Darling, itself… I agree, it’s a cracker! It’s a funny one; it’s a film based on a bizarre concept, and that cannot have come from the commissioners in government. That will have come from John Krish and his colleagues at the production company. And I think the point of that film was to really get through to the experienced driver who thinks that he – and I think they would have been thinking of a “he” here, rather than a “she” – knows it all and doesn’t need any driving advice. Basically: “Get out of my way, government, I know what I’m doing!” This is a film intended to break down the complacency of that driver.

So they came up with this completely bizarre concept, which is to visualise the inside of the driver’s brain. Starring all the actors you mentioned! It’s a COI film, so the budget isn’t that high… [Laughs]. They obviously wanted to convey a futuristic, Star Trek-type high-tech environment, but they could only go so far within the COI budget. The film would have cost a few thousand pounds. But it’s such an incredible concept, and my experience of showing that film to people is that… well, as with a lot of COI films, they tend to laugh at the beginning at the slight campiness of it, but then get more and more caught up in the narrative. It ends with the death of these characters, and therefore the death of the brain, and the driver himself – who is obviously a surrogate for the over-confident male drivers who are watching the film. That scene is intercut with footage of his wife at home, getting ready for him to return… and a film which is made on slightly too low a budget, and starts off rather silly and camp, actually has you completely gripped by the end. If you were part of the target audience, you might have started off thinking “Oh, yeah…” but you’d have reached the end of it feeling slightly sobered.

Colin Baker’s performance at the end of that film is genuinely chilling. As the brain, he attempts to contact other parts of the dying body, which – one by one – fail to respond. Leaving the brain alone and panicking, conscious that the rest of the body has died around it. It’s horrible. I think it’s a great example of the COI producing not only something with a worthwhile message, but also a terrific short film in its own right. You could almost show Drive Carefully, Darling as an episode of a TV anthology series. It’s not far from being a Twilight Zone.

Absolutely. And the other thing that’s great about the COI films is their brevity. It’s not a very long film; in fact, it’s shorter than the average Twilight Zone. With the filler adverts, the classic Green Cross Code stuff that we talked about earlier, they were very much formatted in terms of length: they were 30 seconds, 45 seconds or a minute; or something like Dark and Lonely Water was an especially long one that would fill a whole advertising break. But once you get beyond that world, there was no set length for the films. They were the length they needed to be.

That’s something that I think is quite important from the film-maker’s point of view. There were disadvantages to working for the COI… they were notoriously tight-fisted when it came to allocating budget, and they were known to be very bureaucratic, of course… they would make you answer to every move, and they in turn were answerable to their clients within government. But the upside was actually that, if you could convince them of the creative concept, you might be trusted to execute that, at the length and in the style that you wanted. So that discipline of working with a brief, combined with the freedom of interpreting that brief, is a really interesting thing to study. More interesting, in a way, than a completely independent film-maker producing works of self-expression in their own time and with their own money. Of course, that’s a hugely important part of creative practice, but it’s interesting at the same time to look at films produced in prescribed circumstances, and see how that can drive creativity.

Speaking of the budgets, Public Information Films did a wonderful job of attracting big names of the day: not just actors, but pop stars, sports stars, TV presenters and so on. I spoke to the BFI’s Vic Pratt about the Children’s Film Foundation’s similar reputation for attracting big names on a budget, and he said actors felt that appearing in CFF films for basic rates was simply a nice, public-spirited thing to do. Did the same apply to Public Information Films?

I think so, yeah… I’d make the same assumption as you. I haven’t seen any primary source evidence on this, but I think it’s extremely likely.

And also, I guess… for a public figure, it’s never a bad move to have your face on TV on a regular basis!

Yes, especially on something that’s going to be shown over and over again!

On the subject of actors, can we show a little love for Richard Massingham here? For a long time, I simply knew him as “the man from the Public Information Films”… he appears in so many of the 1940s and 1950s films, in particular. But I’ve discovered from this set that he was quite an important figure in their development.  

Oh, absolutely! I think it would be fair to say that Massingham was the first genius of the British Public Information Film. He wasn’t the first to make them: there was a film made by the government about the influenza outbreak after the First World War, long before the COI, so the Public Information Film goes back at least 100 years. But in terms of Public Information developing as a specific tradition with a specific form, Massingham was key to that. A lot of people will recognise him as “that guy…” and for sure, he’s got a brilliant cinematic face. And a very British one as, well – there’s a slightly quizzical, hangdog expression he masters. You have to see it! A brilliant face.

But he wasn’t just an actor, he was also a producer and director. He was a doctor, originally…  but he’d dabbled in amateur film-making and found his way into the profession. And he really came into his own in the 1940s, when he ran his own production company and often appeared in short films – including Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases! What he brought to the Public Information Film was the British tradition of dark humour. And that continues to be a major facet of not just government information, but also the world of advertising, and of corporate messaging… sardonic humour is still one of the tools in the armoury. It’s often intended as a way of bringing the cynic onside. As a nation, we’re arguably quite iconoclastic and suspicious of our elders and betters… and I think the whole world has become more cynical about anything coming from official or corporate sources. So to offset that, you depict an everyman who appreciates the black humour of life. And I think that’s what Massingham does.

What A Life!, on the new set, is an extraordinary piece of film-making that takes that approach to extremes! It’s basically a Public Information Film, starring Richard Massingham, that confirms that life is appallingly dreary and depressing. And it ends with a failed suicide attempt.

What A Life! is a one of a kind! Anyone reading this interview who’s never watched this film… stop reading now, buy the Blu-ray, put it in the machine, don’t worry… Bob and I will wait. It’s an extraordinary dark masterpiece which, given that it was made as a piece of government communication to the general public, slightly beggars belief. I don’t know what would be the modern equivalent: Michael Gove commissioning Frankie Boyle to make a film about how Britain is going to the dogs due to Coronavirus and Brexit? It’s in that realm of unlikelihood.

There’s another actor who appears in it, Russell Waters, who was a character actor from a lot of feature films, and he was a Massingham regular. He does a good job in that one. But Massingham is the star of the film, and the basic premise is: Britain is going to the dogs. It’s the other side of the post-war moment to Brief City. The country was bankrupt after the war, rationing was continuing, and there was a faltering of national self-confidence. That’s what that film is addressing, and it has to show some empathy with that point of view if it’s going to address it. But I think most of us watching that film today would say that the empathy probably comes across more strongly than the antidote! Which is basically: “OK, everything is going to the dogs, but let’s have a laugh anyway”. I suppose it’s quite a British point-of-view. There’s that old World War Two aphorism that contrasts the American and the British point-of-view on life… the Americans say “The situation is serious but not desperate,” and the British say “The situation is desperate… but not serious!”

And I think that’s where Massingham is. In non-serious desperation. He was absolutely brilliant. A brilliant actor, but also a brilliant director and producer.

The film on the set that I find incredibly touching, heart-breaking even, is Never Go With Strangers. It deals with a truly horrible subject matter with such gentleness, and sensitivity to its audience. Is this a film that really strikes a chord with children of the 1970s?

Yeah, I think so. And it was also quite widely seen, although it was held back from TV for quite a while.

I think I saw that one at school: a policeman actually came to our school and introduced the screening.

I didn’t see that one at school… it was maybe starting to fade by the time I was in the target audience. But I think it was widely seen in schools, and I agree with you… it has a gentleness, and a certain warmth. But I think it’s also quite a stylish film as well: it’s a very elegant production. Again, I’m going to fly a flag for a director here: it was made by Sarah Erulkar, who perhaps should be better known than she is. She worked entirely in the field of short film-making, from the late 1940s through to the early 1980s, and she did a lot of stuff for the COI, and for industrial companies and charities. She was unusual, not just in being a woman film-maker at that time, but she was also Indian: born in India, and raised in the UK. That was completely unique in the film industry at the time. She had a great eye for camera composition: her films were very elegant, but in a self-effacing way.

And her work on that film was impeccable, as it’s a very difficult and sensitive topic. And I think the difficulty with any film about safety – particularly if it’s intended for children – is making it scary enough to move people out of their complacency without terrifying them so much that they can’t deal with it at all and completely shut down.

Now you could argue that some of the other films go too far with the latter… 

Yes, and gave children a nosebleed!

Exactly! So that’s a debate you can have, but I think Never Go With Strangers is exemplary, because it absolutely treads that line. No kid watching that would go away unaware of the issues – it does hit them where it hurts, as it were – but it’s done in a way that doesn’t scare them off and turn them into gibbering wrecks. It really strikes the right balance.

It’s easy to see some Public Information Films as being quaint or silly, but Never Go With Strangers is done with genuinely caring intent to protect the very vulnerable, and I think that’s worth celebrating.

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the films from this genre are intended to save lives, so yes… you can mock the period trappings of them, and with hindsight you can see things that we’ve learned since that might add others layers of interpretation, but actually the basic idea behind making these films was a very sincere and morally admirable one. Although we’ve quite rightly made light of the likes of Apaches and The Finishing Line, I don’t consider them to be exploitation films, in any meaningful sense whatsoever. At their core, I’m convinced, these are humanist films – their methods may be outlandish,  but those methods were selected to connect with people, to help them, to protect them. And more generally with the COI, one of the things that I find moving about all these films is that they are all, in their different ways, public service film-making. Film-making paid for by the public, for the public good. And even though you can critique or analyse them, there is a kernel in there that is wholly admirable. Not a lot of money was made from these films, and massive reputations weren’t necessarily built from them, I just genuinely think they come from a good place. Let’s not be too cynical about their driving force.

I feel almost guilty about saying this, but there was a moment during the early Coronavirus lockdown when the TV was on, and I was pottering around the house, and I suddenly heard the immortal announcement: “This is a Public Information Film from the UK Government.” And I can’t deny it gave me a little frisson. Is there a case for re-establishing some form of the COI in 2020?

Right… this is quite complex! There’s an aspect of political history to this, as well as an aspect of communication theory. Firstly… it’s not that there are no Public Information Films being made. There are. In fact, during the Coronavirus period, people may have seen films from the government giving advice about handwashing and staying alert… possibly during ad breaks, but also online. Most of the ones I’ve seen haven’t been particularly creative in their style, but they have been made. Government departments have still commissioned films, just not through the Central Office of Information.

For example, if we talk about the issue of child safety: I’ve seen films from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command that are really taking the message of Never Go With Strangers into a very different social and technological era. Tackling things like grooming online, so it’s “Never Go With Strangers…” but in this case, the strangers are people that you meet on social media. Those films exist, but you won’t have seen any of them: the reason being that they’re not intended for you. Unlike in the 1970s, when almost everybody watched the same media, today they’re very demographically targeted. So those films will be shown in schools to particular age groups, or they might be distributed on Facebook or Snapchat. The idea of a commonality of experience in watching Public Information Films has gone, to some extent. Not withstanding things like the Coronavirus films, which are intended for everybody… but even then, the nature of the pandemic has meant that those messages are being updated on a frequent basis, so they’re not intended to have the sort of lifespan as the Charley Says or Green Cross Code adverts. Those films often ran for a decade, or even two. Those films are not being made now.

But the point is… the government has not stopped using film since it closed the COI… what it’s not doing is using one single, central agency. The cabinet office has a role in overseeing communications, but there are a lot of government departments or public agencies that independently come up with an idea for a film, and contract and direct a production company or an advertising agency to make it. And then, as I say, it might be distributed via a very targeted method. So the tradition of the Public Information Film as it existed from the 1940s through to the early 2000s is dead, but the practice of making Public Information Films isn’t dead – it just exists in a completely different form.

So is there a case for a new COI? It’s probably too political a question for me, as a public employee, to get into! But I guess you could say one of the positive things about the COI is that… because they were doing it, year in and year out, they really learned to understand their craft. And they really understood the film-makers that worked with them… who specialised in what, who could do a good job on this film or that film, how to distribute films effectively, and awful lot of best practice about the applied psychology of their audience: school-age children, for example. They definitely made some missteps along the way… and for every Charley Says, there’s a SPLINK! Do you know the SPLINK campaign?

Yes, with Jon Pertwee…

Exactly, and I’m not going to be able to recite the acronym, because it’s so bamboozling! It’s the most ridiculous, overwrought acronym! So that was a failed Public Information campaign. But the COI built up a case law, really, of what worked and what didn’t work. And I suppose you could argue that it dated from an era of co-ordinated central government that preceded an era when outsourcing became such a dominant aspect of government practice. So the COI was a creature of its time in that sense.  

And in terms of releases from the BFI… will there be any more?

Well, we’ll see how it goes! This set is a distillation of a series of DVD releases that we did several years ago. We took the best titles… or those most appropriate for Blu-ray. But if it does well, and I hope it does, then we’d absolutely be interested in doing more. Any maybe we might consider some of the COI films that we haven’t previously released at all. Let’s see what happens! 

Thanks to Patrick for his time, and for such a fascinating insight. The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films is available here:

And there is a full review of the set in the Haunted Generation column in the current edition of the Fortean Times, dated August 2020.