Charley Says Review
Those of you old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s will doubtless recall all too clearly just how miraculously lucky you were to make it through the era in one piece, with death or at least severe maiming awaiting all those who did… well, pretty much anything at all.
Step outside the front door, and the chances are you’d cripple yourself by treading on broken glass, be mown down by a whole posse of drunken drivers or meet a sticky end while going fishing on an overloaded boat. But indoors you weren’t safe either, as you could be burned to a crisp by forgetting to unplug the telly last thing at night or scald yourself via a carelessly-placed teapot. If you were a child, you’d be bombarded with warnings about not talking to strange men (“Hello little boy, would you like to see some puppies?”), unless of course they were telling you how to cross the road safely. And God help you if the four-minute warning sounded, as seemed all too likely.
This DVD collects together a whopping 157 public information films made by the Central Office of Information between 1959 and 1983, designed to inform and educate the public about a whole range of issues from how to use a pelican crossing to the principles of decimal currency to how to cast a vote. Everyone who was alive back then will have seen most of them at the time of their original broadcast, and plenty of younger people will have too, as clips are forever popping up in various comedy programmes – and with good reason, as they’re quite hysterically funny, not to mention downright sinister at times.
I mean, who on earth thought it was a good idea to make a film about the Grim Reaper stalking a load of children round an adventure playground? (A childless Ingmar Bergman obsessive, one presumes). Or that a ludicrously-bequiffed Alvin Stardust would be able to persuade children to cross the road safely? Or that a cartoon cat talking gibberish (the Charley of the DVD’s title) would persuade us not to go out with our friends without telling Mummy first (just why is she taking so long talking to the milkman anyway?)? Or convince us that if a nuclear attack was imminent and one happened to be caught outdoors, hiding under a bridge or lying down on the ground might help avoid vapourisation (the “Protect and Survive” films should be included as extras on the Dr Strangelove DVD – they’re so far beyond satire that they’re terrifying).
I particularly liked the tendency towards absurdly overwrought metaphor – apparently slipping on a rug place on an over-polished floor is exactly the same as sticking your leg into a rusty mantrap, and going out for a drive in the fog is indistinguishable from sticking your arm into a cageful of crocodiles. Even funnier are the attempts at simplifying concepts to the point of incomprehensibility – to be fair, Jon Pertwee’s road-crossing maxim “Splink” is easy to remember as an acronym, but what the hell does it mean? I can’t remember, and I only watched his explanation a few minutes ago!
Individually, few of the films have anything particularly going for them – production values are resolutely bargain-basement, the acting is rarely more than competent and usually far worse, the animation makes Bob Godfrey’s contemporary Roobarb look like Pixar, and the overall cinematic merit is next to nonexistent. But the cumulative effect of watching two-and-a-half hours of this stuff is weirdly potent and powerful – and far more revealing of the way we lived then than any film, novel or award-winning sociological study you care to name.
Quite by chance, I watched this DVD with an Italian friend, and her bafflement was all too apparent from a very early stage. Not that she didn’t find it as funny as the rest of us – but she kept asking, entirely reasonably, why on earth people thought it worth making films like this in the first place (“We don’t need to be told this!”). Britain, unlike Italy, was (and to a great extent still is) a deeply paternalistic, rule-bound society, and the COI was effectively the Government’s mouthpiece for imposing its own view of How Things Should Be on the general populace (the foot-and-mouth warnings from the late 1960s show that some things really haven’t changed that much). At the same time, though, the films reflect and acknowledge the seismic change in British society over the period, which makes the combination of clipped 1950s-style BBC voiceover and the height of 1970s fashion even more bewilderingly bizarre (just what is Kevin Keegan wearing?).
Talking of our Kev, he’s just one of a whole galaxy of stars wheeled out for our delectation, instruction and amusement. John Altman (Nick Cotton’s EastEnders playing a drink-driving “stupid git” - yup, the COI really nailed down contemporary urban speech patterns), Basil Brush, Joe Bugner, Ken Dodd, Rolf Harris, Jimmy Hill, Glenda Jackson, Stratford Johns, Ted Moult, Jon Pertwee, Jimmy Savile, Alvin Stardust, Gillian Taylforth, Ernie Wise and the cast of Dad's Army – not forgetting Dave Prowse’s immortal Green Cross Code Man (come on, who seriously thinks that Darth Vader was his career peak?), plus some of the ugliest representatives of the Great British Public that it’s ever been my misfortune to come across. Did tens of millions of people really live through all this with a straight face?
There’s very little to say about a DVD like this – understandably, the technical quality varies somewhat from clip to clip, with some showing more damage than others, but the average standards are commendably high (I suspect they were sourced from COI original materials). Not too surprisingly, there’s a fair bit of grain (pretty much everything would have been shot on 16mm) and colour fading – at the time, few would have thought this stuff worth preserving! - but that adds to the period feel. The transfer itself is perfectly adequate, with no obtrusive digital blemishes, while the aspect ratio throughout is 4:3 – there’s no reason anything made for 1960s and 1970s telly would be anything else! (This of course excuses the lack of anamorphic enhancement).
Similarly, the sound is the original mono and that’s pretty much all there is to it – I don’t have any problem accepting that it reproduces the relatively low-quality originals perfectly, and a 5.1 remix of this material would be laughable. To be honest, it’s hard to rate this stuff in any meaningful way – but suffice it to say I got exactly what I expected and I doubt anyone will be disappointed.
There are no real extras to speak of, though there are at least three navigation options – you can watch every clip in the order that they’re listed, you can single out individual clips from a menu that lists all 157 (a numbered, dated and printed list is reproduced on the inside of the DVD case), or you can watch them in a random order, though this third option leaves a bit to be desired: unlike a CD player’s shuffle function, there’s nothing to stop the same clip being played twice (or more often), which happened a little too often for comfort.
Regrets? Well, some background information would have been nice – not just about what on earth the COI thought it was doing but also some identification of the people who made it. It’s a racing certainty that Peter Greenaway worked on a few of these, as he was a COI film editor throughout the Seventies, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a few other big British cinema names involved as well – not because the films are particularly good, but simply because of the difficulty of getting gainful employment (in the Seventies, unless you were Ken Russell or Nicolas Roeg, you either made TV commercials, COI propaganda or soft-core porn). That said, if the films’ creators wished to remain anonymous… well, it’s understandable.
But I can’t recommend this DVD highly enough. As social and cultural history it’s genuinely fascinating, and as entertainment it’s sensational. Even at the £14.99 RRP it’s worth it, and I’ve seen it going for far less – in fact, it was an impulse purchase in a recent sale. Go on, treat yourself – and you never know, you might save a life or two into the bargain.