The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films Review
This box set is being released, and reviewed, during the lockdown in the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. It’s possible to imagine films like the ones in this set being made to reinforce a message of Stay Safe and to Stay At Home. In fact, one of the films in this set was a response to another, and still ongoing, pandemic.
During World War II, there was the Ministry of Information. After the end of the War, the Central Office of Information (COI) was founded in 1946. Its job was to produce materials for the public, supporting particular campaigns and enabling the messages that particular government departments wanted to convey. Those materials included films, more often than not distributed non-theatrically in 16mm, often to schools and sometimes shown on television. Many of these were made from the 1960s onwards, when wartime austerity was ended, and many a future professional filmmaker or actor worked on them. Among the filmmakers represented in this box are Peter Greenaway, John Mackenzie, John Krish, Nicolas Roeg and others.
Some of the best-known films were not afraid to use shock tactics. Even something as short as Lonely Water packs a lot in to its minute and a half. The black-robed figure of Death (voiced by Donald Pleasence) oversees children playing by a lake, watching as unwary children fall into the water, one show-off sliding in while another unwary child falls in. Sensible children escape Death’s clutches to his regret, but Death signs off with a sepulchral “I’ll be back”.
Further films effectively present horror films on a tiny budget for an intended childhood audience. Apaches, from its title onwards, comes on like a western, shot by a professional film crew (director John Mackenzie, cinematographer Phil Méheux). A group of children – played by boys and girls from a local school – play Cowboys and Indians (which in itself is a Seventies touch) in a farm. One by one, over just under half an hour, they die – run over, poisoned, drowned in manure, killed by a falling gate. With each death, we flash forward: a child’s name being removed from the school coat hangers, a desk being emptied, a bedroom being cleared out. Finally, we see a family group sitting round a table. A funeral. Apaches ends with a list of children killed in farming accidents. The film scarred the children who saw it. The BBFC, rating this film PG in 2015, refers to mild threat and injury detail. That’s as maybe, but its impact was far from mild.
Along similar lines is Building Sites Bite. Cousin Ronald comes to visit and Paul and Jane imagine a time and a place where his so-called brilliance serves him badly on a building site. He is buried alive, crushed by falling bricks, electrocuted, all to convey the message that building sites, as well as farms, are not to be trifled with.
Sometimes the filmmakers were thought to have gone too far. Never Go With Strangers begins with a cartoon version of Red Riding Hood and then moves into live action with a man behind the wheel of a car asking a young girl if she would like a ride home. It’s hard to convey the risk of sexual assault to a young audience without becoming unduly explicit, but a young girl is warned of the danger of having her clothes taken off and rude things done to her. Needless to say, the men in question (and, occasionally women, as the narrator says) look entirely normal. The government only allowed this film to be shown to selected audience with an adult present.
Some of the films were aimed at slightly older audiences. Smoking and You was an early skirmish in the campaign against smoking, particularly aimed at deterring teenagers from taking up the habit., with images of the amount of tar filling up and damaging lungs, and longtime smokers with emphysema. Another Case of Poisoning, the more disturbing due to being in black and white, in 1949 tracks lack of hygiene as the cause of sometimes fatal food poisoning. Drive Carefully Darling is aimed at those old enough to be able to drive, and is introduced by longstanding television presenter of his day Frank Bough.
Directed by John Krish, the film takes us through a day in the life of its central character, a husband and a father. This is conveyed in subjective camera, Meanwhile, in the style of Inside Out many years later, we enter the man’s head and meet his brain, his memory and his ego, played by Colin Baker, John Challis and Christopher Owen. Needless to say, it all ends badly. As Bough says, “when we get into our cars, we are prepared to blow everything sky high”. Given the slightly older audience, Krish is allowed some mild language, “bugger” and “bloody”. Drive Carefully Darling – in which the man clearly doesn’t – won the 1976 Grierson Award for Best British Short Film.
Not all of the COI films were intended to scare and warn. Waverley Steps, made in 1948, is subtitled A Visit to Edinburgh, and we have a miniature version of the City Symphonies made earlier in the century. We see a man delivering the coal and students at college and at night, a trial for bigamy and young lovers out for a walk. Intended to attract tourists to Edinburgh, it does not warn but entices. Riding On Air, made eleven years later, does the same in an attempt to promote the appeal and the health benefits of cycling.
After 1990, the COI’s film production declined, as government ministries were no longer required to use their services. The COI was finally disbanded in 2012.
The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films is a two-disc Blu-ray release from the BFI. As this was reviewed under Covid-19 lockdown conditions, not all of the films were available to review and those that were, were watched via video link (those with running times in minutes and seconds). The box set is exempted from BBFC certification. As the films were mostly made for non-theatrical distribution, they do not have certficates, though some do. If you wish to traumatise your offspring, Apaches has a PG certificate. Waverley Steps and What a Life were given U certificates on their original release.
The contents of the discs are as follows:
Children of the City (1944) (31 minutes). Brief City (1952) (21 minutes). Design for Today (1965) (15 minutes). Voyage North (1965) (22 minutes). Lonely Water (1973) (1:33). Drive Carefully Darling (1975) (16:37). Apaches (1977) (27:24). Building Sites Bite (1978) (29:19). Insight: Zandra Rhodes (1981) (15 minutes).
Your Children and You (1946) (29 minutes). Waverley Steps (1948) (31:12). Charley's March of Time (1948) (9 minutes). What a Life (1948) (11:38). Another Case of Poisoning (1949) (14:20). Riding on Air (1959) (15:35). Smoking and You (1963) (10:42). The Poet's Eye (1964) (20 minutes). Opus (1967) (29 minutes). Never Go With Strangers (1971) (18:32).
Some of the films predate the widescreen era, but as the later ones were primarily shown non-theatrically in 16mm or shown on television, they are all presented in a ratio of 1.33:1. The films mostly originated in 16mm though some, like Waverley Steps, were 35mm.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0. There is no indication of hard-of-hearing subtitles. One film, Opus, has had its soundtrack altered due to the BFI being unable to license the original music, the Beatles’s “Drive My Car”, so this has been replaced.
There are four extra films, all quite short. Searching (0:56), again directed by John Krish, is short and very simple, with three tracking shots round a burned-out house, to illustrate the danger of children playing with matches. Grain Drain (1 minute) returns us to Apaches, and the danger of playing in grain pits: a child’s cries on the soundtrack as a doll is sucked into the grain. Tornado Trailer (2 minutes), directed by Claude Whatham, was intended to serve as an advertisement for the RAF, with the plane of the title swooping and climbing to the synthesiser music of Chris Gunning, rather like a lower-budgeted British version of Top Gun.
Finally, one of the best-known COI shorts of the 1980s, AIDS: Iceberg (0:41), made in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic which is still ongoing nearly forty years later. There were more than one version made of this commercial, some with a voiceover by John Hurt. This one uses captions, and gets its message across despite official squeamishness about sexual practices or even the mention of condoms. It was directed by Nicolas Roeg and Brian Eno provided the music.
The BFI’s booklet runs to thirty-two pages. It begins with a three-page article by John Hall, who is qualified to comment as he was the director of the COI film division between 1982 and 1989. His essay is a brief history of the COI’s aims and objectives, and its changes over its six decades of existence. This is followed by notes and in some cases credits for each of the films on the discs and the extras, by Patrick Russell, Jez Stewart, Kieron Webb, Sue Woods, Steven Foxon, Scott Anthony, Alex Davidson, Linda Kaye, Tony Dykes and Simon McCallum.