We’ve seen them all before: those eerie government commissioned short films which leave a lasting scare on childhood. For decades they’ve been warning us about driving safely, not talking to strangers and checking our smoke alarms, but of late they appear to have disappeared off our screens altogether.
And the timing couldn’t be worse: social networking continues to pose a great many threats, drugs have never been more readily available, and terrorist grooming is making Jihadi war criminals of seemingly innocent young Brits. Lets not forget child abuse- it’s been recently revealed that in the UK alone there at least 60+ ongoing enquiries into such matters involving at least 2,100 alleged victims.
Surely this is demand enough for public information films to make a return and teach us how to deal with the perils of life once again? Or have we seen enough to last us an eternity?
As a kid growing up in the 90’s I was exposed to the tail of end of PIF’S on fire safety, drinking driving and crime prevention, but even these don’t come close to capturing the harsh life lessons which my parents and grandparents generation were taught. PIF’S, at their most graphic, are horror films in their own right- complete with creepy narration, grim endings and more importantly real life dangers.
Here are 10 of the most terrifying to pass across our screens:
1.) Charley Says- Strangers (1973)
Cutout animation at its most surreal.
While out to play in the park a little boy called Tony is approached by a stranger and asked if he’d like to see some puppies. In the nick of time, his pet cat and conscience, Charley, intervenes with a growl to remind him that he shouldn’t go off with people he doesn’t know. The moral of story- Don’t talk to strangers.
The Charley Says Series was broadcast in the 70’s and 80’s and warned children all over the UK about the various dangers surrounding health and safety. It’s bizarre duo of boy and cat are odd in shape and move with an almost ghost like glide which instantly unsettles the viewer.
2.) Fire Prevention Safety: Searching (1974)
This PFI depicts the grim aftermath of a fire in a family home with grisly realism.
As light streams in from an open window onto dark empty rooms, a voice of panic breaths heavily and is greeted by ghostly echoes. A child’s voice screams “Mummy”, another daddy, before the final untimely message is delivered: “Please keep matches away from children”.
The terror here lies not so much in what’s seen as implied. Without faces to voices our imagination left to run riot as it ponders what could of been and is no longer.
3.) Lynx Scavengers (1987)
The UK fur trade took a huge knock in the mid to late 80’s when Animal rights group, Lynx, stepped on scene. They published posters, launched TV ads and even enlisted top photographers and musicians to fight their cause. Their campaign, which lasted as many as 7 years, changed consumer attitudes on fur wearing forever.
At the heart of their campaign was this truly harrowing public information film which depicts blood sucking insects feeding on fur jackets worn by high society types in a luxury hotel. It’s message is painstakingly clear: “When animals are killed for their fur, two kinds of scavengers move in. The difference is the flies don’t know any better”.
4.) Drinking Driving Wrecks Lives: Eyes (1992)
A single camera shot focuses in on the face of a girl laid out on the curb after a drink driving accident. As the camera slowly zooms out so too does the girl’s life begin to fade. Her face is ghostly pale, her eyes expressionless and ambulance crew shove oxygen pumps in her mouth. The voice of worried man pleads, “I didn’t do it”, but sadly he’s too late.
While not the first PIF to deal with Drink Driving, it’s certainly one of the most frightening.
5.) Dont Inject Aids (1987)
The “Biological Apoclaypse” which was AIDS in the UK in 80’s/90’s struck fear into all that lived through it. Back then, HIV was a new disease with no known cure which people believed caught be from toilet seats.
The Government was in large part to blame-Between the mid 80’s and early 90’s over 73 million was allocated to the development of the national AIDS public education campaign: an approach which saw leaflets being shoved in people’s doors and Presenters demonstrating condom usage on Prime Time TV.
Public Information Films on the films on the disease were altogether ominous- none more so than the famous Monolith/ Iceberg short which carried the message ‘Don’t die of ignorance’.
The one I’ve chosen here depicts an AIDS ridden man admitted to hospital for a blood test, wherein the administering of an injection makes him recall a previous time when shared a dirty needle.
6.) NSPCC Can’t Look (1999)
One of the NSPCC’S most traumatising ads yet which was kept on the air despite countless complaints.
While no physical pain or suffering is visible, raised voices and crying offer telling clues of violence behind closed doors. From start to finish we see nothing but hands over eyes- on wallpaper, a coffee mug, a magazine; even a toy action man is bent into position.
The moral of the ad comes as no surprise to us: “We can’t bear to look either, but cruelty to children can be stopped”
7.) Dark and Lonely Waters (1973)
Easily the scariest on the list. This PIF from the early 70’s warned children about the dangers of playing near open water.
To nail home it’s message, it featured the grim reaper as the “spirit of dark and lonley water”, and Donald Pleasance as the sinister voice over. The setting is a barren landscape of misty swamps, old cars and weeds- where traps lie at every angle and naivety is preyed on.
The ad was commissioned at the time in reaction to a large number of child fatalities to drowning accidents, and was shown regularly on tv during breaks in children’s programming.
It has since been heralded as the UK’s fourth-favourite PIF of all time and the highest ranked one-off production.
8.) British Heart Foundation- Artery (2004)
I was 15 when this ad first came out- and to this day it’s put me off cigarettes.
It all seems rather innocent at first: a small group of 30-40 somethings gather for a drink and smoke at the pub. Then the punchline hits, “We’ve all tried to give up smoking- it’s hard. But it’s the smart thing to do”. Next minute, those same cigarettes being smoked become disguised artery valves with fat dripping out the bottom.
Eventually we’re shown a real life artery being squeezed out on an operating table and learn: “This much [fat] was found in the artery of a 32 year old smoker”
9.) Welcome to the Battery (1988)
This truly terrifying PIf on battery farming came directly from animal welfare organisation, Compassion in World Farming.
On the time of it’s release in 1988, it proved groundbreaking- back then, batteries were more or less the norm, and free range a radical concept.
Opening the film is a bald headed, speckle eyed professor type who asks” Will everyone please take their seats”. Addressing us as battery chickens he explains “They [the surgeons] will remove your teeth and nails” adding “It is in your interest to comply.
In what feels curiously like a dictatorship speech, battery cages are painted like prison cells , where strict space allowance is given in accordance with government regulations. Whether you care about where your eggs come from or it, this ad makes you think.
10.) “Sunday Lunch”- Crime Stoppers (2006)
An everyday Black British family are gathered around a dining table at breakfeast. Food is dished up, conversation is thrown about and it’s not immediatly apparent what’s going to happen. All of a sudden the mother pulls a hand gun out from above a door and lets lose on the youngest boy blowing the brains from the back of his and splattering blood across the room.
With Gun Crime continuing to prove a big problem in the UK- least of all in the black community, this Crimestoppers ad makes the very real suggestion that: “If you keep quiet about gun crime, it’s like pulling the trigger yourself”.
As barefaced as PIF’S are, they really get down the crux of what’s important in society in way that’s both creative and didactic. True, education, religion and general common sense play a key role in teaching us morals and awareness, but in a world governed by moving images and social media, surely television stands as much greater medium for communication? Bottom line, what “Charly said” 40 years ago is still relevant today.