Stop! Look! Listen! (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros never did try and get their frisbee back from that sub-station
Public Information Films (PIFs) have a strong nostalgic value to people over a certain age; the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties were fabulous times, television presented government-produced commercials - advising children and adults alike about the dangers of everyday life. The seventies were the golden age of such PIFs, showing various horrors - electrocution in a sub-station, the horrors of letting rabies into Britain and Rolf Harris waving bye-bye with his foot. Those splendid folks at the British Film Institute (BFI) have put together a fourth compilation of Public Information Films to entertain and inform all over again.
We have to admit that this stuff is like a porno to us. You can’t just see one of them and leave it at that: you need more... and more... and more - to the point where your missus wonders if it’s even worth bothering with the pretence of spending time together any more. Well, OK, you get the point. It’s addictive stuff, and we got hooked on to it from an early age - when we were the target audience for them. We still might have tried to pull boiling chip-pans off the cooker and never turned down the offer to look at some puppies, not to mention mixing cross-ply with radial tyres in more recent years, so it’s clear we viewed them as pure entertainment whilst still heeding their dire warnings.
The BFI has gathered together more cracking examples of public information films for Stop! Look! Listen! in a double-disc DVD, and it was reminiscent of a particularly bountiful Christmas morning when the copies turned up on our respective doormats. No matter how you wish to view them: as social time-capsules, pure entertainment or even to educate your kids (putting the fear of Christ in them in a way never matched these days), you will still get a totally unique rush - itself leading to pure addiction. Victor Lewis Smith made a mini-career from trotting out and riffing these little gems of shock, but here you can experience them as they were meant to be seen: tinted in blood from behind the sofa. This certainly is a porno to us, but you don’t have to put up with poor wah-wah guitar music and it comes with an attractive sleeve rather than plain, brown wrapping.
With the inclusion of some more recent examples, this release is an invaluable chance to judge how the styles have changed over the years, aside from mere aesthetics. The drink/drive Eyes campaign shows the neo-realist approach, with the dilated pupils of a victim fixed in an eternal stare, as a fruitless round of resuscitation is carried out. The Play Safe: Lonely Water advert contrasts its horrors of children drowning with a spectral malevolence presiding over events, serving to have both a physical and ethereal warning to those watching rather than merely showing the outcome of such tragedies. Sure, the drink/drive one is geared towards adults, but there is no question as to which of them sticks in the mind longer.
There are two ways of reviewing a compilation like this: the first of which is to do a basic overview of the material, pointing out a couple of the films which particularly caught your eye; the other is to methodically go through the entire contents and give your personal opinion of everything, right down to the smallest of advertisements. Anyone who has read our stuff before will know that we don’t take the easy road on these things; with our love of public information films so strong, there was no way we were going to short-change those of you, that want to know exactly what they are getting - especially, when you plunk down your hard-earned money. This could be a hairy ride, kids, so strap yourselves in, kids - or is that “Clunk/Click”?
Thirty Miles an Hour:
Meet Mr Evans, he likes to keep within the speed limit, but is public enemy number one for not driving slower. Sure, he’s obeying the law, but should numb-nut kids, pissed-up pensioners or fluffy-headed girlies (busy “thinking about a young man“) happen to wander out into the road, he’s the one who cops it for “driving faster than is safe” when they end up wrapped around his front wheel. Showing this to a number of people, it was unanimously agreed that this comes across as an “interesting” interpretation of the laws of motoring. Hazard-perception applies at the top end of the speed limit as much as when driving slower, and is all relative to how much attention is being paid by the motorist. This is the kind of instance were if it came to court today, that Mr Loophole a**ehole would have no trouble getting his celebrity clients off on any enforcement of this “driving faster than is safe” guideline. Questionable law aside, it’s an important little piece, and as aficionados of the genre, having public safety veteran Richard Massingham as the responsibly-dangerous motorist, was a real tonic; Massingham being the guy who made us understand that you are ONLY allowed to take £5 in cash with you when travelling abroad, so as to prevent Johnny Foreigner form amassing too much of our British currency! Oh, and don’t forget to look out for comedy legend Dick Emery as a cheerful mechanic - the one person in the business who’d look better with a car on him.
A Moment’s Reflection:
Oh man, this comes with a pre-credit sequence to rival the Bond movies for sheer entertainment value. An angry man is trying to aggressively overtake a van, accompanied with a perfect poem, laced with anger, resentment and a very surprising piece of profanity! After a dynamite opening, it settles down into an entertaining look at the way a husband and wife approach the road; the woman is off on a driving lesson and the male is out for a cruise, both destined to meet at a steakhouse for lunch. The age-old routine of “mirror/signal/manoeuvre” is the message being hammered home this time - contrasting the sensible leanings of the diligent learner, to the experienced motorist riddled with bad habits he’s picked up over the years; there are no prizes for guessing which of them is going to end up ordering their aperitif first. There is lots of decent advice on here, but it is tempered by the castigation of the male driver's actions, with one piece seriously open to question. Said guy is impatiently waiting at a junction, but makes sure the road is clear. Upon pulling out, he is promptly overtaken by a speeding sports-car, for which our anti-hero is verbally castigated over not anticipating the other car. The highway code says that you should never assume the actions of another driver, but the dickhead's actions in the Jag would have been impossible to predict; the driver's actions leave viewers wondering: at what point is it EVER safe to pull out at a junction. “Eight thousand people a year die on the roads. Why shouldn’t you join them?” is the stark message at the end, but have no fear: Jim makes it to the steakhouse in one piece, even if he is late; the worst thing to happen to him that day is being stuck with a large bill from a woman who won’t even put out in exchange for a decent bit of rump.
This short 1949 PIF highlights the importance of observing the Highway Code, by using a series of potentially fatal blunders that could end the lives of drivers and pedestrians alike (or possibly both at the same time). This is breezy and entertaining stuff, with the protagonist intentionally made out to be a dolt; the target audience was clearly the sort of driver who learned to drive during the war and got a driving licence without actually taking a test. One would presume that the term "woodenhead" was used as a derogatory term for the protagonist because the Censor wouldn't let them use "s**thead"...
Too Close For Comfort:
Most of the familiar faces seen in this set are usually there because at the time, they were up-and-coming actors who were eager to get themselves seen in whatever project was offered. One of the main exceptions here being Reg Varney, who was an established bona fide star at the time. Varney - who has largely ditched his famous Mockney accent that he used in a certain television series (we say 'largely' because he speaks with a bizarre hybrid accent halfway between his "gor, blimey" and his real "doesn't he talk posh?" ones) - gets off the buses to jump into another form of motorised transportation - the car. In this 15 minute Public Information Film, Varney presents a tongue-in-cheek look at the dangers that careless motoring can bring about.
The tone is worryingly uneven, almost as though it's a film depiction of the mental processes of someone suffering from bi-polar disorder, and not taking the appropriate medication to stabilise the condition; veering between comedic moments and serious periods, it almost feels as though Varney was desperate to show he had gravitas; that he could do things with a little more weight than the glorified music-hall routines (as seen in On The Buses). The on-screen buffoonery is underlined by a voice over provided by one of Britain's great unsung character actors, Richard Wattis, who seemed to make a living as condescending and/or outraged civil servants; Wattis is effective here by constantly pointing out the idiocy of the character played by Varney.
Ending It All:
Fans of Monty Python will be very please to find this little gem - filmed when the show was at its peak. Here we have Michael Palin demonstrating various ways of ending your life; the process of driving unsafely on a wet road being a more effective suicide than the traditional method of throwing yourself under a train! The style is very much in the Python vein, and we defy anyone not to crack a broad smile whilst watching; you can’t help but think the kind of dimwit who would speed in the rain, will focus solely on the comedy, rather than the message. This reduces the potency from a pointed stick to that of a banana, but is still fun all the same.
Mind How You Go:
The jolly super Valerie Singleton warns us of the dangers of not using the Green Cross Code. In actual fact, she is used as a “white-coater,“ book-ending the film with technical information to justify the existence of the project. In this case, she is bringing a bit of star-powered saleability to it. Young Graham has only one thing on his mind today: getting back from school in time for his sisters' birthday trip to the circus. Over the course of the day, he accumulates pieces of knowledge to which all add up to the Green Cross Code. An outing to the zoo teaches him to look and listen all the time like a bird of prey. A run-in with the prepubescent Martin Kemp for the importance of making yourself visible. The PE tutor tells him to look all around him before moving, etc. We expected Martin to understand that if you can’t hack it in the world of sports, you can always become a embittered teacher. Like a mechanical Hollywood screenplay, all the elements pay off in the end, and Martin makes to the circus in one piece. The lucky little sod gets to see real animals there, too!
Singleton closes the entertaining proceedings by demonstrating the Green Cross Code herself, but it’s amusing that just as she is exiting frame to do so, a bloody great truck hurtles towards her. If we had had some creative input on the project, we’d have requested the inclusion of an Easter-egg, using some creative editing to give it that perfect Plan 9/Bela Lugosi “... never to return again” coda. Flippancy aside, this is a novel way of impressing the Green Cross Code upon kids, and was the gold-standard until Dave Prowse literally muscled his way into the campaign.
This 60 second PIF gives a countdown to the end of the life of a child, showing the moments leading up to her being ploughed down by a car. This is pretty shocking stuff - even for today, and was somewhat ground breaking at the time because a black child prominently appears (which the booklet included with this set reveals that people objected to, a sad reflection of the time). There is a pleasing sense of impending doom in this one, with audiences more emotionally invested through knowing that there is only a finite amount of time left in a young girl's life. This effective method was employed in exactly the same way by Herschell Gordon Lewis - when he superimposed a stopwatch on his trailer for The Gore Gore Girls - allowing patrons time to flee before the blood started flowing. This PIF was unquestionably successful in getting the message across through a short, sharp and shocking manner. Surely a case of “mission accomplished”? The effective brevity of this PIF paradoxically leads us to the next one to fall upon our gaze...
Drive Carefully, Darling:
This REALLY is a bizarre one; this PIF is introduced by Frank “Boughy the Snowman” Bough, who rattles off the path of life before launching into a preamble to the main part of the this Freudian tale...
The mind's inner workings of a typical single-child family are seen clear, as we are introduced to the Brain (Colin Baker), Ego (John Challis) and Memory (Christopher Owen); this is well-written and entertaining, as it is appropriately thought-provoking - showing the relationship between the brain and eyes; it also shows how the mind can function whilst driving and how the ego can override other aspects with fatal consequences.
John "Boycie" Challis puts in a good turn as the snobby and reckless ego, but it's the future Sixth Doctor "Baker" who shines here, with his considerable range as an actor coming to the fore. Brain's sense of fear and horror escalates as he realises that he has lost contact with all areas of the body. The last couple of minutes will arguably have more of an impact on the viewer than most other PIFs in this set; it is largely down to the excellent work of Colin Baker - even if he is sporting a ridiculous moustache at the time. The ending is very reminiscent of the infamous conclusion to the Burgess Meredith Time Enough at Last episode of The Twilight Zone; in the episode Baker’s brain is left suddenly deserted and alone from the primary senses.
Accident in Park Road:
This late entry from 1988 features a prominent appearance from Graham Cole, who played friendly and dependable PC Stamp in The Bill for many years; here Cole plays - wait for it - a friendly and dependable PC who has to interview witnesses of an accident; the accident involves a skateboarding child coming a cropper after trying to cross the road between parked cars. The collision itself is quite brutal, and the sight of a skateboard flying through the air sticks in the memory.
What we get here is a Rashimon-style look at varying points of view over a singular incident, but all pointing towards the same conclusion: the kid was in the wrong on this one. As well as quizzing the victim's friends, Cole also speaks to the driver of the car, who is played by Norman Eshley (most famously George and Mildred's snobby neighbour, Geoffrey Fourmile). Eshley's career was fairly depressing, in that it seemed to mirror Orson Welles' - having the most prominent and significant project coming early on, gradually slipping down and ending up just doing commercials (Welles' for alcohol and photocopiers, Eshley for Movilat).
This is a refreshing spin on the usual “FOR THE LOVE OF JESUS, DON’T DO IT!!!” way of telling kids to cross the road safely, with all aspects of the accident making it all the more potent. Personally, what makes Accident in Park Road horrifying for us is that one of the kids who witnessed the accident is wearing a tracksuit that is almost identical to ones that we wore at the time. Horrifying, indeed...
Look Out for Trouble:
The importance of the fourth emergency service is rolled out here, with an animated list of incidents which require contacting our men in the boats immediately. We remember this one from the time, and even though we were a bit too young to articulate it back then, it didn’t seem to “speak” to us. Watching it again, it becomes clear that it’s geared towards frightfully middle class children, and comes across as almost foreign to those from a working class background - in fact we almost expected it to depict a gang of lower-class oiks hurling broken bottles at swimmers in distress. Still, the information is imparted with clear precision, and gives no room for misinterpretation, which is the goal of any public information film. The frame-rate could have been a bit higher, but this is secondary to the message presented. The musical stings accompanying the life-threatening incidents really help the film to stick in the memory. Happy nostalgia for all.
Joe and Petunia - Coastguard:
This is one that most people with an interest in PIFs will fondly remember, as it was revived a few years back and updated to reflect the fundamental changes in telecommunications that had occurred in four decades.
This is one of the classics, featuring ignorant northern scumbags Joe and Petunia, who are having a day at the seaside and clearly haven't read a certain work by British poet Stevie Smith, when they mistake the frantic waving by a man at sea as a friendly gesture. Voiced by Peter (definitive voice of the Daleks) Hawkins and Wendy ( Butterflies) Craig, this is still a very amusing PIF, even if the version presented here is the updated version, which features such modern items such as a Burberry baseball cap and an i-pod.
No Short Cut:
This advert for the Nation Cycling Proficiency Scheme is an odd one, and sure to be of interest for those looking for something which boarders on the surreal. The tale is told from the cycles’ point of view, detailing how their owners treat them, and what will happen to them when handled in different ways. Starting out with a mangled bike being collected for scrap, it directly poses the question: “what is it that makes one bicycle grow up as a healthy, useful member of the community and the other an outcast?”.
We see that the discarded bike belonged to the chubby Les, who was not fortunate enough to have a wealthy, pipe-smoking father to assist him in choosing a bicycle like stick-thin Jimmy - his arch nemesis. Whilst Les bolts from school to get riding, regarding the safety lessons as a form of detention, Jimmy makes the most of Cycling Proficiency, and learns to become a happy, safe robot on the road. It ends up with Les’ freewheeling attitude getting the better of him, leaving his bikes’ accident book ending the film. We all knew it was coming, but it was only a question of whether or not Les was going to be scrapped up alongside his new conveyance.
Disturbingly, on the run-up to the bike coming a cropper, it starts to talk to him. This goes beyond merely hearing voices, branching into outright psychosis, as Les not only replies to it, but engages in conversations with his bicycle. The question now becomes that of: "Is the bike exerting a demonic influence over its rider, or is Les using it as a scapegoat for his darker thoughts?” Les might be using animate objects as the first step on his journey to becoming a psychopath, with the torture of small animals next on his “to do” list.
It’s a fresh perspective on the subject, with some deliriously novel twists, combined with all the basics to keep kids safe on the road. The information shown is still just as relevant today, and might play well to young kids who, by pestering parents, let them have their first proper bike - preferably ones who won’t question some of the more dated styles to be found here. Questionable social distinctions aside, it’s solid stuff.
OK, there are one or two other established stars who appear on this set other than Reg Varney, the most prominent one at the time was probably Peter Noone, formerly of Herman's Hermits. In the early seventies, Noone probably woke up one morning not feeling particularly fine and there was something special on his mind - the need to make some money. Blonde-haired, teethy Noone appears as himself, bizarrely drafted in to referee a bicycle race between a reckless teen and a feckless one (Keith Chegwin) - the Highway Code-ignoring youth does all manner of tricks as he sits astride an impressive Chopper. Goody-two-shoes Cheggers abides by the laws of the road and ultimately (and unsurprisingly) wins the race and a new pair of wheels. This is one of the most genuinely entertaining of the longer entries, bringing to mind some of the Children’s Film Foundation’s commercial output. It’s all in the spirit of Ray Dennis Steckler’s Lemon Grove Kids shorts.
Chegwin was trying to establish himself as a serious actor at the time (Polanski's Macbeth was imminent and Lewis' Egghead's Robot was unleashed upon the world the previous year), and it's interesting to see him when he doesn't have a microphone jammed under his nose. This Public Information Film probably served Cheggers well during his later alcoholism period, when he would go out riding in an effort to get away from anyone and have a covert snort.
Betcher! is pretty entertaining, not only to see Cheggers in an early dramatic role, but to also see Noone singing - not literally, but for his supper. It's pretty good at getting the message of bike safety, showing both the right and wrong ways of doing things. This is one of the most genuinely entertaining of the longer entries, benefiting from a well thought out script, naturalistic performances and some semblance of character development, bringing to mind some of the Children’s Film Foundation’s better commercial output. For us, it’s all in the spirit of Ray Dennis Steckler’s Lemon Grove Kids shorts, and just as entertaining.
Magpies - House:
This one from 1984 shows the titular birds massing and eyeing up a house with a spot of thievery on their minds. This is nostalgic stuff for us, as we fondly remember when it originally aired. It's effective stuff and the sinister tones on the soundtrack give it a far more unsettling atmosphere than if they had gone the obvious route and used a certain composition from Rossini. It's probably best to ignore the scene where the feathered thieves go right through an underwear drawer, though...
20 Times More Likely:
One of the main PIFs in this set (we classify it as one of the main ones because of it's sheer length, clocking in at 25 minutes) is from 1979 and stars future Eastender Gillian Taylforth as a learner motorcyclist who develops a crush on a fellow learner; her focus of attention is essentially Anakin Skywalker on a motorbike and eventually (both metaphorically and literally) goes down the dark path and seals his own fate. Whilst Taylforth's character was possibly hoping that the course would explain how to give a blowjob in a lay-by without getting caught, she instead learns a more valuable lesson in paying attention to her instructor and keeping arrogance in check. Whilst watching this one, you can tell that the spirit of Kick Start hovers over the whole thing and you can almost hear Peter Purves and John Lambkin narrating it.
Whilst the soundtrack boasts tracks from several punk bands - including Sham 69, Squeeze, Klark Kent and Great British Heroes, the whole thing seems like an attempt to replicate the feeling of Quadrophenia, but with a contemporary setting and soundtrack. Taylforth's puppy-fat is quite cute, but the story could have been told in about half the time; if brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then this thing must be one of the most witless things ever produced. Towards then end, you just want to yell "just die, for Christ's sake!" at our ill-fated rebel. If you want to take a negative view on this PIF, then the message of this story seems to be: chicks love an irresponsible douche-bag on a bike.
Farm Safety - A Game of Chance:
Pitch(fork)ed as some deranged, rural version of poker, the titular game seeing the unwitting, literally chancing their arm in increasingly horrific ways, culminating in just what happens when Farmer Giles tries to get on his tractor in mid-plough. Yes folks, through either rank stupidity or just trying to cut corners by not employing correct procedures, our purveyors of animal husbandry come croppers with heavy rotation. There are many hilarious examples of unsafe practices down on the farm, but funniest of all is when some dumb Worzel stands on a trailer loaded with bales of hay, idiotically rocking them to check for stability. If they were all wearing smocks and swigging at bottles marked with “XXX”, then it would be the worst kind of cultural stereotype, but it narrowly avoids it by not having such obvious staples. Though you chuckle at the schmuck who gets off his tractor to warm up his hands, and slips into the blades of the machinery, the final shot of his legs being dragged along through the mud is pretty damn effective (almost having a Deliverance-like quality to it). This would never have happened if the cheap b*****d had bought a pair of gloves.
This is one of the most interesting titles in the set and the basic premise follows the pattern of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. A bunch of kids are playing cowboys and Indians, with each of them meeting a nasty fate in a farm environment until there are none of them left. Things are set out nicely from the beginning, where we meet an irritating little b*****d rigidly bleating rules and regulations to the other kids, clearly destined for a job in the civil service. He blatantly ignores the cries of a friend in dire need of help, proving that people won’t even lift a finger to save a compardre drowning in pig-s**t. He really is destined for the civil service. Who will survive through to the end, or will all of their scalps be collected by death itself?
The quality of the acting from the kids is surprisingly good, making a change from the average stiff line readings that are seen in the majority of public information films. There is a dreamlike narrative that runs through the 26-minute film, which adds an extra layer of pathos to the thing; even if some of the deaths are particularly stupid (the one about drinking an unidentified liquid out of an ordinary-looking bottle has to be seen to be believed), the ethereal voice over from one of the kids helps to paper over the cracks. It should be pointed out that the director of Apaches was John Mackenzie, who would in just three short years go on to helm classic British thriller The Long Good Friday. Mackenzie's skill at getting the best out of his cast is certainly evident here.
With the nature of the project, it seems clear that there is going to be more termination than just the immoral taking back of Indian land. In line with the casual racism in the 70s, we can remember that at the time, a game of Starsky & Hutch was played, those who drew the short straw got to be Huggy Bear; in the same way that kids who got short shrift played The Professionals ended up being Cowley. The depiction of Indians as clearly “the enemy” was a few years from being obliterated from the public consciousness through films like Dances with Wolves, etc, and it is a little uncomfortable when you know the politics behind it all. Well, it was the 70s, and because of the element of Indian suffering, it might have been appropriate to play Coven‘s One Tin Soldier over the end credits.
Apaches is pretty damn entertaining, with the longer running time allowing more depth and build up to the inevitable deaths the audience is expecting. It’s shot with flair an energy that keeps you watching, and just about makes you forget that you are being preached to by the government. Special commendation has to go to the subtitle-writer at the BFI, who had the task of providing a written description for the kids as they imitate an Indian war dance, coming up with the memorable caption: “All Ululating“, rather than opting for the more obvious: “all make Indian noises“.
Those of you who are more fond of the "short, sharp shock" style of PIFs that only run for a couple of minutes or less should not feel left out, as toward the end of the second disc, there are several of these that deliver the goods, for example the absolute classic…
Though the Joe and Petunia PIF is the most recognisable out of them, then Lonely Water runs an honourable second; whereas the former got the message across by using humour, the latter manages to be even more effective by simply scaring the living shit out of the young target audience. The premise has a mysterious robe-clad figure that calls himself the spirit of dark and lonely waters and he rattles of a list of types of foolhardy children who can meet sticky ends at the hands of dangerous places to swim. "The show-offs are easy - but the unwary ones are easier still", says the spirit with more than a hint of sardonic malevolence in his voice.
The master-stroke of this PIF was to have the velvety, sinister tones of Donald Pleasance to voice the spirit; this fabulous piece of casting is almost certainly the main reason why this particular PIF was so effective; the resonance and the depth that Pleasance gives to the proceedings cannot be fully calculated - it would have worked perfectly well with any other actor, but it would never have attained the long-lasting cult status without Pleasance. Though the spirit is eventually vanquished by sensible children, his final echoing words of "I'll be back!" kept a generation of kids scared to venture near possibly dangerous waters for years to come. The inclusion of this much-remembered PIF is the equivalent of a major rock group including one of their biggest hits (amid a concert of new material to please the fans), and Lonely Waters is no less welcome for it's inclusion.
Building Sites Bite:
This to-the-point title gives the viewer some idea of what the subject matter is going to contain. What we have here is a real surrealist oddity. The production design and photography is a bewildering fusion of styles, looking like a cross between A Clockwork Orange and the wide-angle cinematography of Death Wish, both of which were still fresh in the public minds at the time. All other aspects conspire to make this a warped concoction, an epic of the COI world, with contrasting characters, a fantasy sub-plot, trans-generational hatred, murderous sibling rivalry, interesting kitchen-sink drama cross-bred with 1930s Republic Studios serials. Although most ingeniously demented is the sick plot.
Get this, for something to phone Social Services about: A posh woman and her spoilt son go and visit her working-class sister and her two kids. She prattles on about how well her cherub is doing in school, clearly intimating that her side of the family is vastly superior. The well-to-do witch wants her precious little son to become an architect, but the two lower-class 'erberts think that he doesn't know how to play it safe on a building site. Through the magic of a dream-like fantasy sequence, the brother and sister put their cousin through five life-threatening scenarios to see if they are right. Sure enough, the high-flying kid in question meets a grisly end at every turn as his cold-hearted tormentors blithely look on, happy to play rough in the class war which rages around them.
Leading our hapless anti-hero into the path of danger is a loveable Yorkshire Terrier named Snoopy. You have to wonder if there was some kind of smear campaign aimed at the beloved Peanuts character in the mid 70s, with Tobe Hooper taking his stab at besmirching the dog’s namesake in his movie Death Trap.
Stephanie Cole(s) plays an interfering aunt whom - ironically - would be best if she were sunk into the foundations on a building site, but serves the story well in making us hate the toffs. Having the fantasy element gives licence to be even more grim and shocking, with the various gruesome fates met by our hapless kid. The kid being tempered by the ol’ “infinite lives” poke written into the programming.
One of our Missus a fan of the Saw movies, and it occurred to us that Building Sites Bite plays like a twisted, kiddie precursor to this tired series. Paul is the Jigsaw character, resentful of the lives of those more content than himself, and designer and of the deadly perils which await his prey. His sister is Amanda, and brought into the games to assist by his side as the mayhem unfolds. We can’t wait until they get really desperate and bring out Building Sites Bite 3D.
If we had to pick out one element which works against all the psychotic bloodlust, it has to be some pacing lulls during the 28-minute running time. Building Sites Bite could have been stronger if some fairly judicious editing had been applied; we're not talking about editing from a modern perspective, as even for the time it would have started to have kids' interest waning midway through. Still, as any slasher movie will attest, you need to the slower spots to appreciate the graphic butchery all the more. Happily, there is enough unusual and quirky material to keep you watching to the end and the kills are pretty well executed, of which, you'll pardon the unintentional pun...
Never Go With Strangers:
This is a 19-minute PIF that was initially intended only to be shown at schools under strict adult supervision and it's easy to see why this was the case. The subject matter involves what could happen to children if they talk to strangers. For those in the media today who perpetuate that paedophilia was purely borne of the evil internet, the COI counter such claims in this rather blunt warning.
The tone is somewhat unusual, but very clever once you appreciate their intentions. Starting out with an animated version of Red Riding Hood, before diving into those who would harm those watching. This is wholly appropriate for a Public Information Film that deals with the subject of paedophiles; several different scenarios are shown and most of them have a relatively happy ending - none of the children are murdered but with the Moors Murders still relatively fresh in the memories of British parents, just the thought of a child not coming home on time was enough to cause a panic.
Some of the striking imagery on display in this PIF is akin to German expressionist art, especially during one particular shot, which employs the use of a towering, menacing shadow engulfing a cowering child as a nonce advances upon her. The Director of Photography on this project was Arthur Wooster, who eventually worked behind the viewfinder on seven of the James Bond movies, and deserves all the praise he receives. The friendly-yet-distant voice over uses various phrases for people who approach children, but the least tactful one that is employed has to be the catch-all of: “A bit odd in the head”. The terminology is kept simple, as it was aimed at children, but firm enough to imply it wasn't going to be in any way pleasant. Probably the most direct term employed was that a stranger "...might take your clothes off... and... [could do] something rude to you". In trying to show all tactics in a kiddie-fiddlers’ arsenal, the film dusts off the three most popular (or even clichéd) lures, those being: money, puppies and sweeties; all three being powerful temptations to snag children unaware that not all adults have their best interests at heart. You can read it as testament to the last power of this film (and stablemates like Charley Says) that the “puppies” bait is part of folklore in the UK, and would stand little chance of working today.
This PIF stresses the point that a paedophile doesn't have to look odd or out of the ordinary and shows several different examples of how one could appear; one or two of them are quite clearly "a bit odd in the head", whereas others are pinstriped business men; the shots of the various would-be puppy-brandishers are reminiscent of the "bring in the perverts" scene from Dario Argento's Bird With the Crystal Plumage. There is an unintentionally hilarious moment where the voice over says that your mother or your teacher wouldn't go off with anyone they didn't know - oh, how times have changed...
Never Go With Strangers is a pretty sobering piece of well-intentioned scaremongering, the sort of thing that would never be allowed to be commissioned these days. Parents would be outraged, kids would be traumatised and both parties would be trying to claim compensation for PIF-induced stress and trauma. There is very good advice to be found, combined with artful direction and enough fear to hold said information in the memory of a child for years to come. If ever the COI surpassed its intentions by a country mile, then this is the one.
This is one we remember from the time - well, probably more through the good few years it spent circling the TV channels in the UK thereafter. A pre-schooler having fun on a climbing frame is juxtaposed with the same girl playing by a rivers’ edge. In both scenes, she falls, but while the rubber matting saves her from harm the first time round, she is not so lucky in the murky depths. The message is stark and clear: although water, as Bruce Lee said, is the softest substance in the world, it kills easily. It seems more to say that incompetent parents are to blame than water itself, as the title of the piece infers, but these things are supposed to spell it out to everyone. One of our Missus' works in childcare, and this COI short was played for her. When confronted by the “Water Can Kill” coda, she was rather trenchant: “So can falling off a climbing frame. The water makes little difference.” Still, it’s stark enough to get the message across, so it works perfectly on its own terms.
Fire Prevention - Searching:
This is a particularly effective example of stark realism, showing the blackened, waterlogged devastation left in the wake of a brutal house-fire. The mind reels at the sight of all a family holds dear reduced to a cinder, with the voices which haunt the property still drifting through the air. This still packs a real punch today, with only the overuse of an echo-chamber losing it any points on a modern audience.
Every 5 Minutes:
We’ve all heard so many complaints about “health and safety” in the modern world, leading to the distasteful rise of the Compensation Culture in the UK, but it was only in the last couple of generations where the Darwinian approach to domestic safety has finally been arrested. Here we visit post-war Britain, and while there was much rebuilding from the German bombs, it was also the time of crafty insurance jobs in the wake of the blitz, leading to an increase in the amount of fires started in the UK. Here we have dire warnings against the dangers of doing half-a**ed patch-ups on electrical wiring, coupled with the efforts of house-proud women to hide said dangerous workmanship under carpets, all combining to alert the general public to just how easily their house can go up.
We’ve all grown up being told about the dangers of matches, and well we have heeded the words of Welephant, but the sight of kids playing with these little sticks of death is disconcerting. A grinning little bleeder is lighting them up as though the funniest thing in the world, and eventually sees his family dragged out of the house by firemen, watching as their home burns to the ground. OK, it’s staged, but it hammers home just how far the UK has come in teaching kids not to mess around with matches. This is the oldest film in the set, but it is a time-capsule of the post-WWII era - when even urinating on an electrical fire sounded like a practical way to put it out. We admit that this one hooked us from early on, when it said that there are 90,000 fires every year, going on to blindly accuse with a favourite line from Plan 9 from Outer Space: “...and somebody’s responsible...”. Affirming how this PIF strove to show that fire can affect people from all classes and cultures, so our other Missus (who's Scottish) was particularly pleased to hear a young Glasweigan boy snap "quit your greitin'!" to his whiny younger sister. This is especially surprising, as it was years before the Babel Fish or Languatron Translator had been even been invented.
Dust off your wingtips, as the big-band swing is in again! Making sure your house doesn’t burn down really did used to be a song and dance, courtesy of the COI. A thoroughly modern couple prance around their home unplugging all manner of nasty electrical devices and ensuring their open fire won’t kill them as they sleep. It’s all very jolly, with some nice choreography and delivers the lecturing goods, but with the need for 24-hour power these days to keep computers, wireless networks and other modern white-goods up running, a lot of the information is irrelevant today. It’s been suggested that as it was riding the tail-end of the 70s energy crisis, it was all part of a big government conspiracy to encourage the public to nix all unnecessary power consumption at the time. Still, our cut-rate Fred and Ginger can hoof it pretty well. Just don’t get us started on of the misappropriation of the musical designation “swing” these days...
Andy Lights the Fire:
Ah yes, this is another one we remember doing the rounds at the time. Two working class, home-counties kids are at home, with the titular Andy providing the title of the film by attempting to warm the house up. Using the biggest cooks’ matches you ever seen, all his well until his simple-minded sister calls him into the next room to look at her drawing of a hippo, carelessly throwing down the spent match onto a copy of The Beano. A fire ignites as the two engage in childhood japes, unaware that the flames are spreading as fast as those in a listed building on the Isle of Wight, the cheap polyester carpets and upholstery feeding the inferno. “Andy, the fire...” exclaims the sister, as she notices the blaze roaring towards them. Will they make it out alive? Can their charred remains ever be freed from the melted polyester cocooning them? Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!
With the inclusion of some more recent examples, this one presents a chance to judge how the styles have changed. This drink/drive campaign shows the neo-realist approach, with the dilated pupils of a victim fixed in an eternal stare as a fruitless round of resuscitation is carried out. The Lonely Water advert contrasts its horrors of children drowning with a spectral malevolence presiding over events, serving to have both a physical and ethereal warning to those watching rather than merely showing the outcome of such tragedies. Sure, the drink/drive one is geared towards adults, but there is no question as to which of them sticks in the mind longer.
All but two of the titles in this compilation ( Eyes and Accident in Park Road) have been sourced from the best film elements available to the BFI (the other two were quite obviously taken from video copies) and they largely look splendid; though there is print damage to varying degrees on most - if not all - of the PIFs, they look better than you have ever seen them looking before and will almost certainly never look any better. Colours can be surprisingly strong on some of them - check out how the colour almost pops on Betcher! - whilst most of the black-and-white titles have a freshness to them that seems to transport you back in time. It doesn’t come as a surprise to report that all but one of them are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, as even the comparatively recent Eyes was before the advent of widescreen TV. The only one in 16:9 is Joe & Petunia, which was revamped a few years back.
Not much to write about here - they all sound as good as they can sound, given the age of the materials.
I Stopped, I Looked and I Listened: This PIF is included as an extra, but it is really more of the same. The interesting premise behind this one was target the older members of society and hammer home the importance of road safety. A group of pensioners are gathered together at a Darby and Jones club, where they talk about problems they encounter with crossing the road and traffic in general. It is pretty interesting, as it presents older people as being "ordinary" folk, back in the days where they were seen as being relics of the Victorian era. The documentary-like feel to this one was quite possible reasonably revolutionary at the time and the realism that can be felt probably made it connect more to the target audience.
Booklet: The attention to detail that the BFI puts into their releases can also be applied to the booklets that are included. The one for Stop! Look! Listen! is no exception, as each one of the Public Information Films included in the set has intelligently-written and informative notes, along with full credits for each of them. Reading this booklet expands your insight and understanding of the purpose of PIFs, as well as putting them within the context of the times they were produced; this is a wonderful addition to an already fabulous set. Hmm, we'd love to have a shot at writing one of the booklets to a future release...
Stop! Look! Listen! presents a number of forgotten Public Information Film gems, and whilst entertaining, they open the doorway to another time when things didn't seem so harsh and dangerous as they are now, but Public Information Films were there to try and convince that things were. Kudos to the BFI for bringing more of these hidden gems out for everyone to enjoy.
The package is just superb, serving as either: pure entertainment, a hot-shot of nostalgia or a good way of scaring your kids out of running into the road. We can easily imagine Stop! Look! Listen! becoming the centrepiece of a themed party, with much beer and pizza being consumed as the contents of the disc spill out like the guts of a freshly-eviscerated child. The drinking game possibilities are obvious: take a shot when a child cops it; two drinks if his name gets screamed afterwards. Not that we encourage irresponsible drinking, but you’ll be pretty sloshed once it’s all over. But remember: drinking and driving wrecks lives...
Review by Wilson Bros
Exempt from classification
Release Date: 15th November 1995
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono 320 kbps
Extras: I Stopped I looked and I listened, Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Colin Baker, Valerie Singleton, Frank Bough, Dick Emery, Reg Varney, Cheggers
Length: 238 minutes
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