The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films – Review

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By @Roger Crow

Your starter for 10, no conferring. What’s the scariest two-minute film ever made? Well, for readers of a certain age it’s ‘The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water’. Donald Pleasence lending his voice as the Grim Reaper is far more unsettling here than in many classic projects such as Death Line, and with any luck it saved a few lives.

Warning of the horrific consequences of playing in or near rivers, ponds, construction sites and other unsafe areas where water hazards are rife, this used to crop up during Tiswas ad breaks a lot in the 1970s.

public information films bfi bluray review apaches


“Chilling curio”

Though billed as “One of the most famous and disturbing films from the Central Office of Information”, I’d never seen ‘Apaches’. It warns of the perils of playing on farmyards, and follows six kids and their unintentionally lethal games.

Helmed by The Long Good Friday’s John Mackenzie and lensed by Goldeneye’s Phil Meheux, it sees a group of kids play cowboys ‘n’ Indians. It was only broadcast in ITV franchises that covered rural areas, and at 27 minutes hammers its message home. It’s not the sort of thing you watch for fun, but as a sort of 1970s version of Final Destination, it’s a chilling curio.

‘Waverley Steps’ – subtitled ‘a visit to Edinburgh’ – is a beautifully shot lost gem from 1948. John Eldridge’s half-hour film takes the semi-documentary form of a collage of scripted vignettes. It involves a coalman’s working day with students’ revels by night, the proceedings of a court with the rituals of a courtship. Amazing to see how little has changed on one of Scotland’s greatest cities.

public information films bfi bluray review never go with strangers

‘Never Go With Strangers’

“Impressive directness”

Inevitably we also get a film on the perils of nicotine. “This man used to be a heavy smoker. Now he’s a helpless ’invaleeed’”. An extract from ‘Smoking and You’, the first official screen contribution to decades of health education campaigning. The 1963 film, made by documentary maker Derrick Knight, lays out the facts with an impressive directness. Inevitably it now sounds like a Harry Enfield spoof, but the message still packs a punch. ‘Give up smoking or you too will suffer the same fate as the poor breathless bloke featured in this short offering’.

Just as unnerving, and rightly so, is the 1971 offering ‘Never Go With Strangers’, which was intended for children aged between seven and 10. Its purpose was ‘to warn them of the dangers of accepting lifts or presents from strangers’.

public information films bfi bluray review coverHowever, due to potential distress, government officials instructed that the film only be shown under ‘responsible adult supervision’, which denied it a TV airing for many years. The animation may have dated as badly as the live action, but the chilling message is spot on.

“Disturbing at times”

In 1987, the anti-AIDS campaign put the fear of god into millions. Helmed by Nicolas Roeg and narrated by John Hurt, the doom-laden, iceberg-centric advert felt like the end of the world was imminent. I imagine far fewer kids were born in Blighty nine months after that ad launched compared to if it hadn’t seen the light of day. Just playing the Brian Eno music probably creates nightmares 33 years on.

And there’s plenty of other short films in The Best of COI: Five decades of Public Information Films. Like the previously reviewed Children’s Film Foundation discs, this is another gem from the BFI, albeit inevitably more disturbing at times. A must for fans of fringe advertising and PIFs, though it’s sorely missing those classics ‘Don’t Dazzle, Dip Your Headlights,’ and the quartet of Joe and Petunia animations, which ran 1968 to 1973 (and even inspired one of the Harry Potter characters).

Children of the City (1944)
Brief City (1952)
Design for Today (1965)
Voyage North (1965)
Lonely Water (1973)
Drive Carefully, Darling (1975)
Apaches (1977)
Building Sites Bite (1978)
Insight: Zandra Rhodes (1981)

Your Children and You (1946)
Waverley Steps (1948)
Charley’s March of Time (1948)
What a Life! (1948)
Another Case of Poisoning (1949)
Riding on Air (1959)
Smoking and You (1963)
The Poet’s Eye (1964)
Opus (1967)
Never Go With Strangers (1971)

Special features:
Searching (1974, 1 min): meticulously planned and expertly executed by director John Krish, Searching won the COI a Golden Lion at Venice. It still hits hard and still hurts
Grain Drain (1975, 1 min): the perils of farmyard grain pits are laid bare in this filler that is simple yet terrifyingly effective
Tornado Trailer (1985, 2 mins): cut together from the rushes of a longer COI film, Tornado, this adrenalin-filled two minutes features synth music by BAFTA-winning composer Chris Gunning
AIDS: Iceberg (1987, 1 min) Part of perhaps the most chilling government campaign ever made, the features music by the legendary Brian Eno and was directed by Nic Roeg (Don’t Look Now)
The Best of COI: Five decades of Public Information Films is released on 2-disc Blu-ray by BFI, £24.99


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