Stop! Look! Listen! Review
It’s a relatively safe bet to predict that Stop! Look! Listen!, the fourth in the BFI’s series of Central of Information volumes, will prove to be the collection’s biggest seller thus far. There is no change in format or remit; once again the COI’s extensive library has been plundered to produce a two-disc set on a selected theme. Yet the element of nostalgia that plays such a notable part in the series’ appeal is arguably a lot greater here. Whereas previous sets (focussing on crime and punishment, design and architecture, and the armed forces, respectively) predominantly threw up rare and little seen titles - examples of the Crown Film Unit’s post-war output, early documentaries by Peter Greenaway, etc. - with Stop! Look! Listen! there is a definite likelihood that a number of its assembled shorts will prove familiar to its audience.
As the title undoubtedly makes clear Stop! Look! Listen! takes on the safety film, from demonstrations of the Green Cross Code to the possible ill effects of children making a farmyard their playground. A number of the titles present were commercials intended for television screening, whilst others were aimed at a youth demographic and as such were issued directly to schools. The result is that those of a certain age will no doubt have been exposed to some of these shorts at some point in their lives. Indeed, judging by the “availability” of poor quality versions of Apaches (the aforementioned farmyard-set film) and Never Go With Strangers on YouTube, not to mention their comments, certain titles could even claim cult status, such are the lingering shock effects they had on their schoolchild audiences. Likewise a commercial such as the Lonely Water ad, warning children against the perils of playing near rivers and lakes, is similarly present in our collective memories - how else do you explain its presence amongst Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments thirty years after it was made?
Furthering the appeal is the smattering of familiar faces throughout Stop! Look! Listen!. There’s the kitsch enticement of a very young Keith Chegwin participating in Betcher!’s cycling proficiency contest overseen by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermit’s fame. There’s a pre-Doctor Who Colin Baker and a pre-Only Fools and Horses John Challis in Drive Carefully Darling or a pre-EastEnders Gillian Taylforth in 20 Times More Likely alongside Ray Burdis who would have recently completed work on Scum for Alan Clarke. In some of the shorter pieces we also find Michael Palin providing the Python-esque (and presumably self-scripted) Ending It All and Donald Pleasence voicing the Grim Reaper in Lonely Water. (Note that Stop! Look! Listen! doesn’t set itself out to be a definitive record of the safety film and so those hoping for the well-known appearances of the likes of Jon Pertwee, David Prowse, Kevin Keegan, Alvin Stardust et al in various public information films should turn their attentions to Network’s two-volume Charley Says releases.)
The casting of Pleasence in Lonely Water is instructive inasmuch as it highlights just how close many of these films get to the horror genre. Shock tactics were the name of the game in so many cases, with some of the longer-form titles going much further than Lonely Water could manage over its scant 90 second runtime. The key comparison is with John Krish’s British Transport Film commission The Finishing Line, which features on the BFI’s seventh BTF volume, The Age of the Train. Much like that title there is a certain macabre glee with which some of Stop! Look! Listen!’s shorts set about murdering and maiming young children onscreen - all in the name of promoting safety, of course! For those who haven’t seen it, The Finishing Line makes real a schoolboy’s fantasy of what a sports day on a working railway line would be like and the events it would entail: fence breaking, stone throwing, tunnel walking, dashing along the tracks, and so forth. Needless to say, the results are injuries and deaths, all captured with enough blood and gore to both entice its intended into watching and to scare them away from recreating such activities in real life.
We see similar tactics employed, most prominently, in Apaches and Building Sites Bite. The latter even recreates the framing fantasy device of The Finishing Line as its young protagonist considers how his similarly aged cousin would cope in six different perilous building site scenarios. The answer is none too well, with the poor cousin getting crushed, drowned, buried alive and other grisly deaths. Apaches, meanwhile, opts for a more direct real world approach and is arguably a masterpiece of the public information film. As the title implicitly hints, this particular short follows a Ten Little Indians logic, albeit with six main characters, each succumbing to a early fate as they play on a farmyard and its surrounding rural environs. The director was one John Mackenzie, prior to his best known work on The Long Good Friday and A Sense of Freedom, but nonetheless with the experience of a couple of feature films as well as television plays (courtesy of Dennis Potter and Peter MacDougall amongst others) under his belt. What this experience brings is a certain amount of cinematic savvy and a very capable handling of the young cast (recruited from a local Maidenhead junior school). They add a welcome touch of realism to proceedings so that Apaches becomes more than just a mere concept; ultimately, you care - and therefore feel the tension - when they begin to carelessly traverse a fatal slurry pit or jump around atop a moving tractor. Cementing the effect is the final roll call of actual deaths that have occurred in similar circumstances prior to Apaches’ production, complete with the very young ages of those who died (a device used once more in Building Sites Bite).
Further parallels with the horror genre also make themselves known in these two films and others. Building Sites Bite supplements its fantasy concept with close-up gore shots, whether it be a severely burnt hand owing to a live electrical cable or a bleeding ear hole to denote that a pile of falling bricks will result in something far more fatal than a few cuts and bruises. More subtle allusions are also made: A Game of Chance, with its three mini-narratives of the perils involved in not following the correct safety procedures whilst working on a farm, recalls a kind of cut price Amicus anthology; maintaining the Amicus connection, we find Elisabeth Lutyens composing the score to Never Go With Strangers, much like she had done for Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Skull (although, in fairness, her work with British Transport Films and such key documentary practitioners as Jill Craigie may have been just as significant here). Incidentally, Never Go With Strangers also uses the animation of Richard Taylor (best known for such kids’ programmes as Crystal Tips and Alistair) as means of lulling its young audience into a false sense of security; the live action scenes which follow - various paedophiles attempting to lure their prey - provide quite the starkest of contrasts.
Of course, with so many scenes of death and terror (and I’ve yet to mention a number of titles which also specialise in roadside deaths, the consequences of household fires and so forth), there really is the need for some respite. Admittedly it’s not all doom and gloom - the Reg Varney-starring Too Close to Comfort is as cheeky and chipper as its lead - but such an overriding mood has led the BFI to program a bonus non-COI short amongst the first disc’s titles (where all of the road safety shorts reside) as a means of relaxing our nerves. I Stopped, I Looked and I Listened was directed by John Krish in 1975 for an intended audience of the elderly. As Krish noted at the time, in a document reproduced in the BFI’s forthcoming book on post-war documentary, Shadows of Progress, “there’s absolutely no point in piling on the horror and frightening them,” rather “it has to be an affectionate film” and one built around “trust”. The idea was that its target viewers would best respond to their peers when taking advice on basic road safety and so Krish went to a Lewisham Darby and Joan Club with two cameras to discuss such a theme with an assembled group of its members. The result is certainly a film which succeeds in its affectionate intents: Krish (and his voice) remains off-camera, and simply lets his group do the talking; various members talk of what they do and don’t know, offer sensible suggestions to each other and, just occasionally, digress away from the subject. Arguably, it is this latter element which holds the most significant weight. It allows a connection with those onscreen to come through far more prominently that it would perhaps have done so otherwise and, therefore, the film’s ultimate message to be all the more effective.
Krish’s ability to come up with such a concept, and make it work so well, serve to demonstrate his undoubted talents as a documentary filmmaker, and an original one at that. Three other entries from his filmography figure on Stop! Look! Listen!, the one-minute spots Searching (a subjective shot through a burnt-out building coupled with a manipulated soundtrack of screams and shouts) and Sewing Machine (“This minute, the one you see being eaten up, is the last minute in this little girl’s life.”), as well as the longer-form Drive Carefully Darling in which a driver’s interior monologue becomes a literal dialogue between personified eyes, ego, memory and brain. The latter comes with a brief introduction, delivered completely straight, by Frank Bough (at this point famous for his presenting jobs on Grandstand and Nationwide), seemingly enough to ground the film’s flights of fantasy. More examples of Krish’s work can be found on various BFI DVDs, from earlier COI discs to various BTF volumes and the forthcoming Shadows of Progress set. The point I’m attempting to make is that whilst Stop! Look! Listen!’s primary appeal may lie in its nostalgic elements and frankly bizarre collective cast, the fact that it also demonstrates many of the qualities of post-war filmmaking, and some of its filmmakers, is not to be ignored.
Indeed, whilst the likes of Apaches or 20 Times More Likely (with its credits sequence set to Sham 69 and other ’edgy’ or ’yoof’ adornments) ably demonstrate the docudrama strand, these two discs also find plenty of room for other approaches. Animation gets a look in from the familiar sea safety-themed ’toons Look Out for Trouble and Coastguard (featuring Joe and Petunia). Richard Massingham offers a link back to the ‘golden age’ of British documentary filmmaking with 30 Miles an Hour, channelling his World War II/austerity-era persona into a road safety reminder made in much the same vein as his much-loved Coughs and Sneezes and The Five-Inch Bather shorts. Every Five Minutes, on the other hand, links in all kind of directions thanks to its assembled personnel of Donald Alexander, Max Anderson, John Taylor, Walter Lassally and Leon Clore. Between them they worked with Robert Flaherty, John Grierson, the GPO Film Unit, the National Coal Board, Paul Rotha, British Transport Films, John Krish’s sixties output and the Free Cinema movement - some of the key touchstones of British documentary.
Furthermore, some of Stop! Look! Listen!’s inclusions work simply on their own terms. A title such as A Moment’s Reflection doesn’t require any qualifiers in terms of the significance of its cast and crew or the like (not, however, that many of these films require them, although such considerations can add an extra dimension or two). This black and white 1968 effort is essentially a model of efficiency and simplicity. The case study of a couple - the wife who is learning to drive, the husband who has been driving for ten years and slipped into some bad habits - A Moment’s Reflection goes about its business solidly and with minimal fuss, proving all the more effective as a result. Certainly, there is a quaint charm to be discerned and mild amusement at some of its inadvertent casual misogyny, but the bottom line remains: this is simply very good documentary filmmaking.
With all of these varying and various elements considered, it should go without saying that Stop! Look! Listen! really is an outstanding collection. It should hopefully succeed in terms of a mass appeal outside of the confines of British documentary, and yet it never neglects such concerns. This is a set which maintains the high standards of previous COI volumes, not to mention the other post-war documentary sets the BFI have been issuing over the past few years (and are continuing to do so; the mammoth four-disc Shadows of Progress compilation is released the same day as Stop! Look! Listen!), once again contributing to the re-mapping of an entire area of British filmmaking that has fallen into neglect and obscurity for far too long. And so whilst many may purchase in order to relive the terror of Apaches or catch a glimpse of young Keith Chegwin demonstrating just how sensible he is cycling on the road, the bigger picture is not to be ignored.
In line with their previous documentary-centred releases, the BFI have done an excellent job presenting Stop! Look! Listen!’s assembled 27 films. The arrangement is thematic (see listings below) as opposed to the strictly chronological approach of earlier Central Office of Information releases, with the longer-form titles (which make up the majority) punctuated with the much shorter ads and spots. In most cases both soundtrack and image are excellent, with all of the films, excepting the video-shot Accident in Park Road and Eyes, mastered in High Definition. A few titles demonstrate moderate damage in certain areas (slight hiss on 30 Miles an Hour’s soundtrack, for example), but given that the BFI have, for the most part, used their own holdings from their National Archive, it would be churlish to expect any improvement; these are all taken from the best materials currently available. Needless to say, original soundtrack formats and aspect ratios have been maintained, in each case mono and 1.33:1 with the sole exception of the Joe and Petunia short Coastguard which is in 1.78:1 given that the version provided here is the 2006 ‘update’ produced for what was then the COI’s 60th anniversary. (The original version can be found amongst Network’s Charley Says volumes.) Optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are also available for each of the films.
As for extras, the on-disc I Stopped, I Looked, I Listened has already been discussed in the main body of this review. This leaves the fully illustrated 34-page booklet which follows much the same format as previous COI releases. A brief introduction placing the safety film within context is followed by extensive notes and available credits for each of the 27 titles. As before, the wealth of information is quite immense, whether it be relating the films to the government legislature of the time or more trivial titbits such as the fact that Sewing Machine was the British commercial to feature a black child (the ad was made in 1973), a move that prompted letters of complaint to COI.
CONTENTS: DISC ONE
30 Miles An Hour (1949)
A Moment’s Reflection (1968)
Highway Code - Woodenhead (1949)
Too Close For Comfort (1971)
Ending It All (c1970)
Mind How You Go (1973)
Sewing Machine (1973)
Drive Carefully Darling (1975)
Accident in Park Road (1988)
Look Out For Trouble (c1980)
Joe & Petunia: Coastguard (1968/2006)
No Short Cut (1964)
Magpies: House (1984)
Bonus title: I Stopped, I Looked and I Listened (1975)
CONTENTS: DISC TWO
20 Times More Likely (1979)
A Game of Chance (1961)
Lonely Water (1973)
Building Sites Bite (1978)
Never Go With Strangers (1971)
Absent Parents (1982)
Every Five Minutes (1951)
Fire Routine (1979)
Andy Lights The Fire (1980)