The COI Collection Volume Six: Worth the Risk? Review
I can’t help but feel that the BFI have missed a trick with Worth the Risk?. Hitting the shops and online stores on November the 7th, it arrives a full week after Halloween. Ordinarily the release date wouldn’t really matter; this is, after all, a two-disc documentary set and the latest in their ongoing Central Office of Information collection. But then it’s also a follow-up to Stop! Look! Listen!, an earlier COI compilation that devoted itself to public information films on road safety, child safety, cycling proficiency, and so on. Contained within were many prominent childhood terrors - amongst them the various farmyard deaths that made up Apaches and Donald Pleasance voicing the spirit of Lonely Water - with many more finding a place on Worth the Risk?. Essentially it’s an onslaught of scare tactics and sheer terror; deaths, injuries and hospitalisation as caused by cars, bikes, fire, fireworks, food poisoning, car bombs, the H bomb, skateboards and STDs. At almost four hours in length, these two discs represent a kind of epic British equivalent of the Final Destination series, albeit one that flits between the decades and switches from black and white to colour. Nonetheless, the bottom line remains: if you’re appearing in one of these films there’s a strong likelihood you’ll either do yourself serious damage, or much worse.
Worth the Risk? expands on Stop! Look! Listen! in two ways. Firstly, the remit has been enlarged so that the subject matter - whilst maintaining a look at road safety and the like - also encompasses the Cold War and civil defence, recruitment for the Ulster Defence Regiment, and more benign themes such as the welfare state and decimalisation. Secondly, the shorter “filler” pieces have a stronger presence, serving almost as ad breaks to the longer-form inclusions much as they would have done when first appearing on the television. With them comes a certain star presence as the likes of Kenneth Williams and Tom Baker lend voices, whilst future soap stars Chris Quinten (Coronation Street’s Brian Tilsley) and Ian Reddington (EastEnders’ ‘Tricky Dicky’) fall in love with a motorcycle and indulge in a spot of nightclub thievery, respectively. David Prowse also crops up intermittently as the Green Cross Code Man in both live-action and animated form.
Needless to say there’s a strong nostalgic pull in seeing and hearing such names of yesteryear, though arguably it’s one that is far outweighed by the films themselves. It isn’t the presence of a former soap star or a one-time Doctor Who that made these various warnings to the public so memorable, but rather the message itself and how it was delivered. Anyone who was shown the Play Safe films at school will have instant recall of the young children who were killed or severely burned whilst flying their kites near power lines or rescuing their Frisbee from a substation. Likewise the paedophile who tries to lure a little girl into his car in Say No to Strangers or the bandaged hand that tried to pick up a still-hot sparkler in the aptly titled Hand from the early seventies. Even a phrase as simple as “Don’t be a clunker” contains enough resonance to transport the viewer back to the time of its original transmission.
That we remember so many of these films is surely both a vindication of their power and their quality. (It should be noted that the earliest dates back to 1946 whilst the most recent was made in 2000; in other words, the appeal and nostalgia extends beyond one or two particular generations.) Grain Drain, for example, is just 40 seconds in length, yet it uses that time succinctly and effectively. This piece recalls Stop! Look! Listen!’s Apaches in its farmyard setting, the central message in this case being “Put a grid on it” in reference to grain pits and their potentially lethal nature if a child were to fall into one. Yet it doesn’t need Apaches’ mini-narrative akin to Ten Little Indians or even a single actor, young or otherwise. All it requires is a toy doll slowly disappearing into the grain in close-up, a voice-over containing such phrases as “a way to drown without water” and the superimposed cries of a very young child. Simple but terrifying - which, of course, works for both the viewer and those who commissioned the film. In the accompanying booklet John Krish notes how his Peach and Hammer PIFs (each around 30 seconds in length) captured their car-pedestrian collisions “in one shot so that you believed what you were seeing was real and therefore difficult to erase from your mind”. The fact that the young stunt artist who appears in the Carol Hill film for the series (the one which makes an appearance on Worth the Risk?) broke her arm during the first take demonstrates just how highly such realism was valued! And of course, it certainly paid off considering just how difficult it is to erase such films from our collective memories, even after all these years.
The cries of a child and a young girl getting hit by a car are hardly the most subtle of devices and so it is throughout much of Worth the Risk?. UDR - Car Bomb positions a screaming mother and ice cream-holding baby directly in front of the titular explosive device, though thankfully freeze frames before it can go off. Don’t Be a Clunker has its leading man thrown through a car window thanks to a lack of seatbelt. And Welephant offers up what is effectively a rogues’ gallery of kids who have learnt the hard way that playing with matches is no fun. Except that from the comfort of an armchair, and with a distance of years or decades, Worth the Risk? arguably is a great deal of fun. Not simply for that strong whiff of nostalgia, but also for the fact that the procession of gruesome deaths and injuries these films provide when watched in a group is hugely entertaining. Indeed, it’s perfect Halloween viewing. Pleasingly the longer-form items maintain the horror albeit without going for the immediate scare tactics. The earliest film, Mr Jones Takes the Air from 1946, is an almost Altman-esque portrait of rural life in which, incrementally, the various characters and vignettes build to a final, fatal occurrence. The Motorcycle File, made in 1975, opts for combining the crime reconstruction approach with that of a ‘whodunit’: one of our cast of characters (an airline pilot, “the elegant Mrs Stafford”, and so on) will perish, but which… and why? This particular film also comes with a host to add to the air of a horror anthology show and ends with a wonderfully cruel twist that raises both a gasp and a smile. The most chilling moment on the set comes from the narrator to Worth the Risk? (the 1948 short which lends its title to the collection), however: “Mr Williams meets Miss Jones. You’re going to kill her in exactly 20 minutes time.”
Not that it’s all death and horror. The public information films were as much about assuaging fears as they were playing up to them. And so it is that we find demonstrations about where our post-war taxes were going (Pop Goes the Weasel from 1948) or a reassuring piece explaining decimalisation (1971’s Granny Gets the Point). The tone is lighter, jollier and oftentimes comic, which is why it comes as no surprise to discover On the Buses’ Doris Hare occupying the lead role in Granny Gets the Point. Such inclusions work well amongst the darker far found elsewhere on Worth the Risk?, providing momentary periods of calm before we’re back to the crippled drink drivers or the last few seconds in the life of a toddler. Similar relief also comes in some of the more dated PIFs like Skateboard Safety (1978) or Motorcycle Fashion Scene (a hip relic from 165). The former utilises a fish-eye lens, has its narrator gain our attention via “Listen you mad skateboard dogs” and sign off with “See… he’s cool!” - who could fail not to be amused? Indeed, they’re unintentionally hilarious cherries atop another excellent compilation. Scares leavened with the occasional laugh - it’s the perfect combination.
Worth the Risk? follows the pattern of previous BFI releases from the COI collection: two discs containing almost four hours worth of material; no region coding; lengthy booklet with notes on each of the inclusions; and some bonus non-COI films as extras. Unlike Stop! Look! Listen!, however, it does away with grouping together its subject matters (road safety, farm safety, etc.) and instead mixes up its film so that we from child road safety to sex education, say, or food hygiene to ‘play safe’. Given the high number of “filler” inclusions this time around, we also get an understandably greater number of films: 48 on Worth the Risk? compared to Stop! Look! Listen!’s 27. On the whole the presentation is pleasing, though we must take into account the range of material present and its use and/or preservation over the years. With that said, all films have been provided by either the BFI National Archive or the film collections of the COI and as such represent the best sources available. Green Cross Code - He’s Great and Zig Zag - Remember the Rules stand out as being amongst the best (pristine visuals with strong colours and excellent contrast levels, equally crisp soundtracks), but the overall standard is still high. Certainly there are no issues with the transfers themselves; any flaws in terms of image or sound are solely the result of age or production.
On-disc extras amount to the inclusion of The Furry Folk on Holiday (1967) and the full-length Play Safe (1978), both amongst the special features as they’re non-COI works but nonetheless fit in perfectly with the subject matter found elsewhere. The former is a beach safety piece involving Tufty the Squirrel and pals (learning not to bury broken glass in the sand or almost drowning in a polythene sea), whilst the latter is the famous death-by-Frisbee/injury-by-kite film featuring Brian Wilde and Bernard Cribbins as the voices of an animated owl and robin. These two films also come with optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing as do all of Worth the Risk?’s inclusions.
Just as welcome is the accompanying booklet, fully illustrated in colour and totalling 28 pages. Tony Dykes, producer of the COI collection volumes, provides a quick intro to both the COI and the subject in hand before handing over to various BFI staff - and a few others - to take care of individual notes for each of the films. Here we find the context, both historical and cinematic, and a few surprises too. John Krish, for example, crops up to provide a little background info into his Peach and Hammer films, whilst in a happy coincidence it turns out that Brian Wilde’s daughter Sarah works for the BFI and is therefore able to add a more personal touch to the notes for Play Safe. It’s important not to neglect the cinematic side of things too given the various names involved in Worth the Risk?’s films: not just John Krish, but also John Mackenzie (director of The Long Good Friday before he made Say No to Strangers), John Halas and Joy Batchelor (Charley’s March of Time, which also had input from Alexander Mackendrick), Richard Massingham (Another Case of Poisoning), Leon Clore (Answer to Emergency), and more besides. As with each of the COI releases - indeed, as with all of the BFI’s non-fiction releases - there’s a strong documentary value beyond the subject matter itself.
Mr Jones Takes the Air (1946)
Child Cycling Proficiency (1950s)
Cyclists Turning Right (1950s)
Car Booty – Gnomes (mid 1970s)
Look Back (early 1960s)
Worth the Risk? (1948)
Motorcycle Fashion Scene (1965)
Your Turn (mid 1970s)
Pop Goes the Weasel (1948)
Family Income Supplement – Clothes (early 1970s)
Motorcycle Love Affair (1975)
Grain Drain (1975)
Charley’s March of Time (1948, ds. John Halas & Joy Batchelor)
Employment Service Agency – Moving (early 1970s)
Another World (1980)
Another Case of Poisoning (1949, d. John Waterhouse)
Skateboard Safety (1978)
Green Cross Code – He’s Great (1973)
Clem and Lydia (2000)
Answer to Emergency (1962, d. Fred Moore)
Pride in Driving (early 1960s)
Hand (early 1970s)
Zig Zag – Remember the Rules (early 1970s)
Green Cross Code – Julie Saves a Life (early 1970s)
The Furry Folk on Holiday (1967, d. Norman Hemsley)
Play Safe (1978, d. David Eady)
The Hole in the Ground (1962, d. David Cobham)
Join the UDR (early 1970s)
Peach and Hammer – Carol Hill (1973, d. John Krish)
UDR – Car Bomb (early 1970s)
Look… Signal… Manoeuvre (1965, d. H Gladwish)
Wear Bright Gear (1971)
Older Pedestrians – Time (1971)
Green Cross Code – Blockhead Boy (1973)
Granny Gets the Point (1971, d. Jeff Inman)
Don’t Just be a Clunker (mid 1970s)
Take an Adult (early 1970s)
The Motorway File (1975, d. Ferdinand Fairfax)
Passing Places (1973)
Laughing Matter (late 1970s)
Under Your Feet (early 1970s)
Say No to Strangers (1981, d. John Mackenzie)
Green Cross Code – Blockhead Girl (1973)
Fire is a Nightmare – Tom (mid 1970s)
New Markings for Zebra Crossings (1971)