by Stephen Pitt
There’s something entrenched in the consciousness of British society that causes us to respond more effectively to fear. Be it the dramatic gong-like sound effects that open the news to grab our attention, or the fear mongering and negative campaigning by politicians to win our votes. The most creative examples of this can surely be found in the medium of the Public Information Film.
These are adverts that have the purpose of conveying simple beneficial messages; such as don’t do drugs, or don’t drink and drive etc. However, these PIFs use a litany of surreal ideas; mixed with graphic imagery and depressing narratives. Where else on television would you see a bloke who could be a dead ringer for Nicholas Lyndhurst progress through heroin addiction whilst the Blade Runner soundtrack plays?
Or how about an advert where a dog is pretty much held for ransom? (“Give us a pound, or the dog gets it!”)
Here, I’ll be looking at some of the notable British PIFs throughout the years and what makes them so startlingly mental.
Starting off, we have The ‘Lonely Water’ PIF from 1973, which was made to warn children about the dangers of hanging around riverbanks and lakes. Maybe because I struggle to remember a time before satellite television and the internet, but I don’t see the appeal of swimming in freezing lakes near a junkyard, but then there’s a lot I don’t understand about the seventies. Adding a more macabre element is Donald Pleasence as the voice of Death; who seems to spend his time hanging around random riversides, waiting for cockney children to die.
Another big epidemic that apparently needed to be addressed was that of children breaking into power stations to retrieve toys, only to get electrocuted.
This one from 1978 is fairly tame (or as tame as an advert involving child death can be). Though, the most tragic aspect is that young Jimmy would’ve turned out ok if it weren’t for his lady friend nagging him so that she could have her precious Frisbee back. At the end, I can’t help but thinking “No good screaming his name. It’s your fault!”
It seems that this epidemic continued into the 1980’s, creating the need for this 1989 PIF. This time, to up the ante I guess, we got to see a young boy straight up explode. What was it PIFs in this era had about killing off cockney children?
This next PIF takes the whole theme of brutally killing children and runs with it. ‘Apaches’ was a 30 minute special made for classrooms to highlight safety on farms (Prior to the film, there were around 30 deaths of young children each year due to accidents caused by playing on farms). What we see in the film comes across as a low-budget British version on Final Destination, as the children are picked off one by one.
Imagine being an 11 year old in school, thinking you’re getting a nice break from lessons to watch a nice film. Instead watching children get crushed by a tractor tyre (4:55), drowning in a slurry pit (10:10), be poisoned by weed killer (15:23-17:30), get crushed by a farm gate (20:57), and crashing a runaway tractor (23:35).
One thing I always wonder when watching this is how come after the second or third death, the parents don’t go “Hmm, maybe we should stop leaving our children to play unattended on the farm?” Also, no matter how gruesome or vile, no horror film has ever made me listen to a little girl scream in anguish for her mother as she dies a slow painful death.
To bring this topic into more contemporary times, we look towards Northern Ireland and its notorious DOE road safety PIFs. Given the history of violence in Northern Ireland, it’s understandable that their PIFs showcase such a plethora of horrors.
Take this 2007 advert, which is basically the circle of life of human misery. I can understand a dramatic example to make a point, but it’s like they thought “What can we put on screen that most makes people feel like they’ve been punched in the heart?”
Of course they up the ante by going back to that tried and tested trick of child murder. Sure they have a man crying while he holds his son’s lifeless body in his hands, but that doesn’t scream ‘Go big or go home’.
Here we go. On top of exhibiting the mass slaughter of children, the advert pretty much tells you off at the end; despite the fact that chances are most of those watching haven’t killed any children. Also, are people in Northern Ireland in constant fear of cars flipping over a fence and crushing them?
Though the videos I’ve mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg of surreally disturbing PIFs, I share them as poignant examples of the indomitable British spirit of disheartening people until they conform.