‘Welcome to my nightmare, I think you’re gonna like it’ – Alice Cooper
There’s more terror in the mundane, the commonplace, the downright ordinary, than any fictional monster. The horrors bestowed upon those who choose adventure over caution; swimming in a lake on a hot summer’s day or at play with friends in the yard of a friendly farmer, are all the more shocking as they conclude, not with supernatural outcomes but depressingly convincing ones. Even the safety of the family home offers little respite; children slipping quietly into peaceful sleep, Mum and Dad next door taking a Christmas Eve drink with the neighbours, as smoke and flames drift up the stairs.
The Public Information Films (PIFs), especially those of the 1970s onwards, are cautionary tales; warnings to the curious. They tell the story, not of the potential for disaster, but of the disaster in its full ghastly glory. Often they don’t flinch at all, nor turn away to protect us from experiencing the truly abominable. Instead, they dare us not to look away – and we don’t, for the worst imaginable consequence will not befall a child, surely?
The films below span the 70s and beyond, up to the Millennium. Try to avert your gaze again…
Seven years before Stephen King’s IT was published, 11 years before Tim Curry immortalised the character of Pennywise and a full 38 years before a rebooted it became regarded as ‘the second coming of horror’ – it’s really not that good, by the way – a charmingly creepy clown wandered, balloons in hand, into a playground somewhere in England.
The clown’s presence is ultimately a benign one. He simply looks forlorn every time a balloon bursts as it signifies a child has been in a collision with a car, though it’s entirely possible he cares less about the child than his brightly coloured kiddy mesmerisers.
The PIF isn’t so much scary as moderately unnerving and a little creepy, but it’s unlikely that a friendly dancing clown is likely to ever be used again to warn children of the perils of crossing the road without looking. Everything does not float down here.
(click the image to watch the video)
This one is truly shocking. A family coming together for Sunday Lunch is such a routine fixture and here we observe what appears to be a regular family get together. An elder sibling arrives with two friends and they sit and begin to discuss a recent issue outside of the family. The mother serves lunch, chatting amiably, and then reaches up to take something down from the cupboard. What comes next is almost as unexpected as it is shocking. It’s better, in this instance, just watch the denouement without further introduction as words simply won’t do it justice.
‘In a fashion typical for such broadcasts of the period, the films were made to be frightening for young children,’ states the Wikipedia entry for Play Safe. In fact, this film was shown before the 9pm watershed to ensure maximum impact.
In an ostensibly, chid-friendly set up, we meet a Wise Owl (Brian Wilde) and a young Robin (Bernard Cribbins) as they narrate a series of incidents involving children and electricity. The 10-minute version (below) also includes a fourth sequence not shown on television, involving the repercussions of vandalising an electric pylon which results in the death of a cyclist.
The three broadcasts aired on television were:
Camping and Fishing: This episode highlighted the dangers of using fishing rods and camping equipment near overhead cables.
Kites and Planes: A young boy flies a kite into a powerful overhead cable and receives severe burns from a 132,000 volt pylon.
Frisbee: In the most graphic of the films, a boy attempts to retrieve a Frisbee from a sub-station and is killed instantly from a 66,000 volt charge. In the film’s most shocking scene, we briefly see his legs on fire.
When Peter Purves asks us to pin back out ears and listen, we do just that. The presenter was a warm and authoritative presence for many children during the halcyon days of Blue Peter and as we settle down to watch Robbie, Purves tells his audience that he wants to tell us a story. About trains.
It’s a curious film, that starts with a jolly theme and Purvis on voiceover duty, whimsically narrating Robbie’s adventures. Until the moment it all goes wrong. Robbie’s lace gets caught while crossing some tracks and he falls, the train bearing down on him, and is unable to shift his feet over the rails. It’s not a graphic scene (it’s possible Purvis would have baulked at the notion) but it’s tense and no less shocking considering the outcome.
This one/two gut punch of a PIF is a follow-on from the 1978 Play Safe film, minus the cute cartoon birds.
Despite the warning signs, fences, electricity, wires, etc., the promise of a free football is too much for one teenager. He attempts to squeeze through a gap in the fence of a sub-station despite his, clearly more intelligent, friend’s protestations.
The synthesised two-note ‘duh duh’ begins to gain tempo as the teen breaks through and heads towards his prize. Inevitably, he connects with an electric surge and fries in a shower of sparks before, in an even more tragic twist, his impressionable younger brother races to help and meets the same fate.
Is Play Safe didn’t ward children away from the dangers of electricity, then this 1989 film surely helped ram the point home.
This one is a little off-piste. It’s not a PIF in the classic sense, in fact it’s a Greenpeace film and more of critical the fashion industry and a damning indictment of the fur trade.
The absurd pretentiousness of the entire industry is brought to the fore, here, as a number of models wrapped in furs stride up and down a catwalk to the fawning and preening of their audience. We watch as they march to the beat of a Vangelis composition before an audience member recoils from something splashing her face. Cue: a bit of a gore-fest. I don’t recall seeing this anywhere, let alone television, when it appeared in the mid-eighties, but it’s a visually arresting reminder of the power of advertising to sometimes do the right thing. The film ends with the following text in white on a black screen:
It takes 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat, but only one to wear it.
The two posts highlighting some of the most weird and shocking Public Information Films, merely scratches the surface. Hundreds of films were made between the Second World War and 2011, when the Central Office of Information closed, but most are still available via YouTube, the BFI or the National Archives.
Forget the gentle, informative films of the 40s and 50s and go straight for the 70s onwards – but approach with caution.