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This double DVD set is less than £7 on amazon. Inexplicably, the image at the top of this page is of Bob Marley. The DVD I am reviewing does not look like that.
This is a set of more than 250 public information films from days gone by. They don't make them anymore, the kind of gently paternalistic attitude that led to their creation having been done away with years ago. Most of them warn us not to do silly things like leave our houses unlocked or play with matches or whatever. An awful lot of them are aimed at children, including the title series, in which a judgemental cat named Charley saves his young owner from drowning, molestation and all kinds of other nastiness. But there's a very wide range covered on the disks, from using handkerchiefs properly to preparing for nuclear war.
The 1970s nuclear ones are a bit weird. I'm not sure if they were ever actually shown publically (the lack of information about context is a little frustrating in this set). Apart from the 'duck and cover' message parodied in South Park, the oddest thing about them is the assumption that everyone has something called a 'fallout room' in their house. Is this a feature of the 70s that no one talks about anymore? Slade albums, fondue sets, and domestic fallout shelters? Or were we all going to be instructed to build them if things had looked like they were going to go wrong?
In an entertaining change of tone, a film about how to dispose of dead bodies during a nuclear war is followed by Basil Brush telling us about the dangers of paddling out to sea on a lilo. And that's followed by Lonely Water, an amazingly creepy little film in which the grim reaper (voiced by Donald Pleasence) hangs around waiting for children to drown. The last child is saved by his friends ('Sensible children!' curses Pleasence. 'I've no power over them'). The grim reaper vanishes, leaving only his cloak, Ben Kenobi-style. It looks like the kids are going to use the cloak to dry to boy they've just saved - it would have been brilliant if they'd done so and he'd transformed into a new grim reaper, in classic cycle-begins-anew style. Still, I guess it was a public information film, not a horror movie.
It's amazing the number of things they were worried about us doing. Dip your headlights. Only use the hard shoulder in emergencies. Don't use cross-ply and radial tires in combination. Shut your windows. Turn off heaters when you go to bed. Always let someone know if you change your plans when sailing. Don't put rugs on freshly polished floors (surely the most random of all the films; I wonder what hideous rug and polish related injury prompted it). The films are both touching, in their desire to prevent harm from befalling us, and rather insulting in that some of their messages are incredibly obvious.
One recurring theme has two children - always a boy and a girl - trying to lure another child off to have a picnic with them. The tempted child can't get mummy's attention to tell her, so he doesn't go. Then, when mummy finds out later that he's been good and not gone, she rewards him with a picnic with her instead. This one happens about three times, including to Charley and the boy. Who were these children constantly trying to lure good boys and girls away to go on 'picnics'? There are levels of meaning here that I can't quite unpick - we've all seen The Wicker Man, right?
Another recurring fear is rabies! By crikey, the Brits were scared of rabies in the 70s and 80s. Why aren't we anymore? Have they stamped it out or something? The best anti-rabies ad has a melancholy looking black lab wandering around the suburbs, constantly spurned by fearful residents, like some hideous inversion of the Littlest Hobo. Thanks to the blameless labrador, dog and cat shows are cancelled. (Cat shows? Are there such things? Why are they never televised? Is it because cats are inherently boring? Clearly yes.)
One of my favourites is the Scottish one that shows drunkards lolling around the streets. 'A pretty girl, pretty drunk, is not so pretty,' a voiceover informs us. Quite aside from that being a debatable point - if a chap is also drinking then he is unlikely to notice the degeneration of his lady friend, and the popular 'beer goggles' phenomenon might even make her seem more attractive - what is the message we're being fed here? That women shouldn't drink? That they should stop home washing kilts and making haggis, or whatever Scottish ladies do in the eyes of London-based government information filmmakers? Why not apply the same message to men, perhaps focusing on the effect on sexual potency of necking 20 pints of beer?
Roughly half of the first disk is animated, including some Welsh squirrels with a poor grasp of road safety and a lot of Arthur Lowe voiceovers. There's a very annoying cartoon couple, Joe and Petunia, who feature in several adverts behaving appallingly badly, or just really stupidly. Unusually, they die in their last appearance as the buffoonish husband fails to check his tires properly (perhaps they were a fatal mix of radial and cross-ply). The most famous of the cartoon ones are the Charley Says series. The best of these are where poor Charley himself comes a-cropper, including a hilarious one where he manages to pour scalding hot water over himself, apparently putting one of his own eyes out in the process.
The other half features actors or celebrities. Rolf Harris wanted us to learn to swim, Jimmy Saville wanted us to wear seatbelts. Lots of different celebrities got angry about kids not crossing the road properly (Alvin Stardust was particularly insulting to the children in question). The most famous is the green Cross Code man, played by Dave Prowse, who was more famous as Darth Vader. Notably, the earlier adverts featuring Prowse dub him with an RP actor, but later he gets to do a couple himself, with his strong West Country accented voice. Some of the celebrities can't seem to quite decide whether they're trying to be funny or serious (Jon Pertwee for instance), but it's all quite sweet. You can't imagine many of today's celebs doing this kind of thing, and I say we've lost something as a society as a result. Various people who became famous in the future turn up in early appearances in these films, too, including Gillian Taylforth (not, sadly, in a film about inappropriate use of the hard shoulder); and PC Dave Quinnan from The Bill.
Both these disks were released separately, and disk 2 was obviously released after the success of disk one. Consequently, it's not nearly as much fun - they'd obviously used most of the good stuff on the first disk. We get a lot of tedious road safety and saving energy stuff. There are a few decent ones, like the guy who look just like Donald Sutherland running over a little girl, perhaps in revenge for Don't Look Now. And there's a funny one which implies that people in Northern Ireland all drive around wearing blindfolds. I assume this is a metaphor. But on the whole, disk 1 is more engaging. Still, it's hard to imagine this being much cheaper, and at last you'll come away from the whole set with an enhanced appreciation for safety.
It is probably best not to try to watch all these in one sitting, unless you are very, very high. They're a bit samey, and might end up making you paranoid about whether you've left the gas fire on, or put a rug on a freshly polished floor, or whatever. They'll also make you realise that, whatever vague childhood memories you may have, Basil Brush was actually intensely irritating. There's nothing genuinely unpleasant here, although a couple of the rabies ads are a bit sinister. Certainly it doesn't include the legendary farm safety video that traumatised a generation of rural youths.
But it's nice that these films were made at all, and nice that they're collected here for us to enjoy. They're a throwback to a past in which the state was an avuncular presence that seemed to want what was best for us, rather than an aloof Roman emperor who made us fight to the death for its amusement. Well worth checking out.