Produced by many different British government departments, but mainly the Central Office of Information (the successor to the wartime Ministry of Information), these films were not only widely shown in cinemas but were part of a huge distribution network screened in factories, schools and community halls. Part propaganda and part social engineering, these films return to a time when smoking in the office was standard or families had a nuclear attack ready fall-out room.
The cinematic quality of these - essentially government sponsored adverts - can be attributed to the craft of some of the greatest names in British cinema history who worked on them: including the much-celebrated Richard Massingham, Alberto Cavalcanti, John Grierson, Len Lye and more. But many are also unknown treasures. These short time-capsuls of attitude and information offer rare insights into how Britons really lived in the last century.
Arriving exclusively at the BFI, these nostalgic Public Information Films available to view free online on BFI Player, drawn from the unique holdings of the BFI National Archive and partner archives across the UK; many are seen here for the first time online alongside acknowledged classics of the genre. For the full line up, click here or read on for our personal favourites:
Typing Technique dir. Michael Law (1945), 23min
Will plucky Miss Brown survive her boss' stern looks? Juggling mechanical typing, shortened and carbon copying under the beady eye of her unimpressed boss, this film uses the dictation of a report on good technique to a hapless typist as a neat, if somewhat patronising, structure. You'd have to be hard-hearted not to sympathise with the delightfully fidgety Miss Brown.
Copy Book Please (1949)
Best handwriting, please! An unusually well-spoken postie – in the form of comedian and actor Terry Thomas – instructs the public in the art of addressing an envelope. Short instructional films were a regular feature of the cinema and newsreel theatre programmes during WWII and the post-war period. Like this one, starring the cheeky and charismatic Terry Thomas, they often enlisted the services of the popular radio, theatre and screen performers of the day.
Never Go With Strangers (1971) dir. Sarah Erulkar, 19min
Is this the scariest public information film ever? Never Go With Strangers was intended for children aged between seven and ten and its purpose was ‘to warn them of the dangers of accepting lifts or presents from strangers’. Due to potential distress, government officials instructed that the film only be shown under ‘responsible adult supervision’, thus denying it a TV airing for many years.
But ask any adult who watched the film during the 1970s in their school hall and they will attest to the indelible impression that it made on their young mind. From the opening animation sequences to the unsettling conclusion, the film draws upon the stories of classic children's fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, to impress upon young innocents that there are wicked people in the world, like the witch and the wolf and the bad uncle, who will use trickery, lures and deception to catch you and hurt you.
With clever but simple techniques such as an off-screen commentator who talks directly to the film's characters, a looming shadow over a whimpering girl, a pulsating red screen to indicate danger and the morphing of a playground loiterer's face into a police identikit face of evil, the filmmakers ensure the young audience's rapt attention.
How to Use the Telephone (1948) dir. Michael Law, 20min
One moment please… Let me put you through to the Kafkaesque world of civil service telephony, an inescapable labyrinth created more by incompetence than malevolence. This clever training film invites the audience to identify good and bad practice themselves, rather than using a didactic voiceover to ram a message home – it even pauses halfway to allow for discussion.
Produced by Richard Massingham's aptly named Public Relationship Films, the film emphasizes the telephone as a public face - or voice - of the Civil Service. Its effectiveness, particularly in the first half, is thanks to good casting and the performance of the actors. A succession of great expressive faces, including Massingham's own, are skilfully framed to walk a line between the comedy and frustration of the situations.
Port Health (1967) 22min
Focusing on the Port Of London Health Authority’s role regarding London’s sanitation, this film explores life around London’s river, interviewing experts charged with ensuring health standards remain high. This includes such diverse tasks as interviewing immigrants to see if they carry smallpox, examining imported food, inspecting house boats and monitoring the quality of water. We also get to see a captured rat being dissected – “an insurance against plague” – between 12:50 and 13:30, which some viewers may wish to avoid.
|What||Public Information Films on BFI Player|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
13 Apr 16 – 31 Dec 16, 12:00 AM – 12:00 AM
|Website||Click here for the full line-up|