Watching Britain Beware on Bank Holiday Monday, I was reminded of seminal moments during my childhood. The programme, presented by Adrian Edmondson, offered a nostalgic and informative trawl through the archives of the Central Office of Information (COI), the government department charged with (among other things) advising the public on how to avoid the daily dangers of life.
I was watching as my partner worked for COI – not for its revered film-making unit, but co-ordinating the regional events that would back the campaigns beamed into our homes during breaks in Coronation Street. However, you’d have been just as likely to watch if you’d been a member of the Tufty Club, or if you bore a soft spot for Charley the cat (voiced by Kenny Everett – who knew?).
Foe me, the show offered an insight into how public information campaigns had shaped my own approach to life. It amazes me that while I would never be allowed to watch horror movies, I was actively encouraged to view some of these short films so obviously inspired by them. I vividly recall the chill I felt, as a little girl, upon hearing Donald Pleasance’s Grim Reaper intone: “I am the spirit of dark and lonely water.”
And I once begged a teacher not to make me watch a gruesome film called “Building Sites Bite,” having already been reduced to tears by a similarly graphic short depicting children dying in accidents around the home (drinking fertiliser from a lemonade bottle in the garden shed, for instance). As each met a grisly demise, their teacher stripped their name symbolically from their coat peg. What an unfortunate class.
Did these films deter me from playing by stagnant water or slurry pits, from drinking household fluids or flying kites by pylons? I’m not sure I’d have been minded to, even if the opportunity had arisen.
The campaigns that made more of an impact included the sustained appeal against drink-driving. This was illustrated by a conversation down the pub, which revealed that older friends seemed quite comfortable with the idea of drinking, then driving home – it had been socially acceptable in their youth, and besides, they knew their limits. In contrast, I and friends of a similar age exercised zero tolerance, having grown up with films that showed the dire consequences, from physical disability and death to emotional trauma and criminal records. As a young child, the sight of such an advert at Christmas (boyfriend/girlfriend go out for a few drinks, boyfriend drives home and has a crash, girlfriend winds up on life support) made me cry.
Then there’s “Clunk Click, every trip”. I won’t set off on a journey until I know everyone has belted up, even in the back. After all, they are the ones who will hit me, as evidenced in “Julie knew her killer” (her son, who crushed her to death due to lack of a rear seatbelt). As with drink-driving, or speeding, I am haunted by the idea that my actions might result in death, if not mine then that of a loved one, or of someone else’s nearest and dearest.
These messages work. I don’t quite understand the argument against the “nanny state” that conspired with the current recession to bring about the closure of COI in March. Not everyone is born with the same amount of common sense or civic responsibility. Sometimes people need telling, and COI found endless ways of doing this. A more recent campaign targeted teenagers through mobile phone footage of a distracted youth walking straight into the path of an oncoming car. This film went viral, and highlights a very real problem – I often check my mobile while walking, and I’m a lot older than the target audience.
When I was at primary school, the Green Cross Code Man visited my home town to instruct us gently in the safest way to cross the road. Now I have a child of my own, I feel a huge sadness, and a great weight of responsibility, that I will have to teach her these things without his help.