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Public Information Fillers

Messages for the masses

Main image of Public Information Fillers

Set up in 1946 as the peacetime equivalent of the Ministry of Information (MOI), the Central Office of Information (COI) was formed to ensure that the public were "adequately informed about the many matters in which government action directly impinges on their daily lives". Of the many hundreds of films it has produced to date, from feature length documentaries to cinemagazines, it is the short public information filler (the popular term 'public information film' applies more generally to all of the COI's output, including much longer works) that remains foremost in our collective nostalgia.

The pithy filler, so-termed because of its original role in filling gaps in cinema programmes and subsequently TV schedules, has its roots in the MOI's wartime information trailers. The succinct format was well suited to the dissemination of essential civil defence information, from instructions on fitting a gas mask to the importance of 'blacking out' at night. After WWII, the filler was reassigned to the task of serving the urgent needs of a war-torn nation and communicating information about the newly elected government's progressive policies. Doctors' Dilemma (1948) and What's in a Number (1948) relayed precise facts about the new National Health Service and National Insurance Scheme respectively, and regular campaigns soliciting support for the production drive, including Women Must Work (1947), were punched out between studio confections and newsreels.

The filler emerged as the dominant format in the COI's output mainly because of reduced production budgets for government-sponsored filmmaking in the postwar period and a reduction in cinema screen time allocated for this kind of distribution. Its rise was further propelled by the growth of television ownership in the 1960s and early 1970s, which meant that the public information filler had to become snappier and more direct to compete for audience attention with household distractions as well as increasingly sophisticated commercial advertising in an era when audiences were evolving from citizens into consumers. In vying for audiences, new techniques and styles started to be incorporated. Children could now be targeted directly and, borrowing from popular television, such memorable cartoon characters such as Tufty the squirrel and Charley the cat were conceived to warn young audiences about the ever-pervasive threats to their safety.

The filler rapidly became a familiar sight on the small screen, and by the late 1960s health and safety was the dominant theme. Contemporary celebrities popular with children - among them pop star Alvin Stardust, Doctor Who star John Pertwee, footballer Kevin Keegan and artist/entertainer Rolf Harris - were enlisted to endorse government safety messages. And whether it was crossing the road, talking to strangers, playing near electricity pylons, or running barefoot on a beach, the implication was that the world was one big death trap. Indoors was just as perilous - a domestic minefield of tea-pots, matches and scalding hot pans lay in wait for the next foolhardy young victim. For older people, the diverse threats of pushy door-to-door salesmen, faulty electric cabling and leaking hot water bottles demanded constant alertness. But with the help of the government, the ingenuity of filmmakers and a line-up of celebrities, survival was just about possible.

With the relaxation of censorship laws in the early 1970s, more explicit images reached our screens. In this vein, the polite remonstration and cuddly animation of previous decades gave way to harder-hitting safety warnings. A succession of blood-curdling mini-horrors were transmitted as COI safety campaigns attempted to shock increasingly jaded audiences out of their complacency. During peak-time family viewing, TV sets offered up images of eviscerated car passengers (invariably the girlfriend of an inebriated male driver) or of children fried alive while playing frisbee near electricity substations. Fireworks Safety - Parents (1976), with its disturbing close-up shots of firework-damaged limbs, was deemed so gruesome that it was quickly withdrawn from distribution and replaced with a less offensive, edited version.

For their critics, the omnipresence of government warnings is symptomatic of a finger-wagging 'nanny state'. Conversely, fans of the genre either applaud the demonstrable concern for public wellbeing on the part of government, or derive amusement (usually retrospectively) from what, in some cases, amounts to the over-simplification of complex social problems. There was little attempt to disguise the propagandist remit of the films. On the contrary, in the 1960s and 70s the continuity announcer's closing clarification over the final freeze frame, 'That was a public information film', clearly signposted the government's involvement.

With its roots in WWII civil defence, the filler has been the official source of information during times of national crises. It's worth remembering that during the 1960s and 70s many citizens would remember having spent many an hour glued to their wirelesses on standby for the latest civil defence instruction during the war. The need for state intervention into the everyday routines of citizens during wartime nurtured a greater acceptance of state propaganda in the postwar era, lasting into the 1970s and early 80s. This was compounded as the Cold War gradually took hold of the nation in the 1960s and 70s (a period now considered the golden age of the public information). An anxious public might, though, have been more anxious still had Protect and Survive (1979) been transmitted in the run up to a nuclear attack.

In the 1980s, growing concern over the AIDS epidemic prompted the Department of Health to commit huge sums to increasing public awareness about the virus with its Don't Die of Ignorance (1985) campaign. The glossy production value of AIDS fillers such as Monolith and Iceberg (both 1985), directed by Nicolas Roeg, elevated the genre to the level of state-of-the-art advertising, and the COI's work began to sit unobtrusively within the advertising breaks. These days, perhaps in response to increased public scepticism towards government, public information fillers are increasingly difficult to distinguish from their commercial counterparts.

These concise gems of official wisdom offer an invaluable record of changing government concerns across the decades, and have proven a launchpad for many an emerging or well-established talent behind and in front of the camera. Certain issues have been perennial, such as petitions for blood donation and road safety, while others reflect the particular concerns of the day, for example, Richard Massingham's memorable appeals for fuel and water economy in the immediate postwar period in such delightful films as Read Any Good Meters Lately? (1947), through instructions on decimalisation in Decimal Coinage (1968) and Granny Gets the Point (1971), to more recent guidance on the problem of bullying in Tell Someone (2003).

Alongside their clear historic significance, they hold strong nostalgic value, and many examples have been granted cult status by a community of public information film fans. Today, the ever-ubiquitous public information filler reaches us via screens in supermarkets, schools and colleges, GPs' surgeries, football stadiums, pubs, trains, buses and motorway service stations, and, of course, public and commercial broadcasting channels.

Katy McGahan

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of AIDS: Iceberg / Tombstone (1986)AIDS: Iceberg / Tombstone (1986)

Powerful public information films warning of the dangers of AIDS

Thumbnail image of Another Case of Poisoning (1949)Another Case of Poisoning (1949)

Witty but terrifying public information film about food hygeine

Thumbnail image of Charley Says: Strangers (1973)Charley Says: Strangers (1973)

Charley the cat warns young children not to talk to strangers

Thumbnail image of Charley in New Town (1948)Charley in New Town (1948)

An animated introduction to a key postwar housing programme

Thumbnail image of Decimal Coinage: New Decimal Coinage (1968)Decimal Coinage: New Decimal Coinage (1968)

Public information filler about the new 5p and 10p coins

Thumbnail image of Doctor's Dilemma, The (1948)Doctor's Dilemma, The (1948)

Promotional film for the introduction of the National Health Service

Thumbnail image of Drink Drive Office Party (1964)Drink Drive Office Party (1964)

Public information 'filler' on the dangers of drink driving after office parties

Thumbnail image of Granny Gets the Point (1971)Granny Gets the Point (1971)

Light-hearted public information film about the arrival of decimalisation

Thumbnail image of Green Cross Code 1 (1975)Green Cross Code 1 (1975)

Green Cross Code Man explains road safety for kids

Thumbnail image of Joe and Petunia: Acceptance of the Country Code (1971)Joe and Petunia: Acceptance of the Country Code (1971)

Public information cartoon about respecting the countryside

Thumbnail image of Lonely Water (1973)Lonely Water (1973)

Alarming film warning children of the dangers of playing near water

Thumbnail image of Play Safe: Kites and Planes (1978)Play Safe: Kites and Planes (1978)

Information filler warning kids against playing near overhead power lines

Thumbnail image of Protect and Survive (1976)Protect and Survive (1976)

Short animated films advising what to do in the event of a nuclear attack

Thumbnail image of Read Any Good Meters Lately? (1947)Read Any Good Meters Lately? (1947)

Entertainingly daft film promoting gas economy

Thumbnail image of Tufty: Ice Cream Van (1973)Tufty: Ice Cream Van (1973)

Road safety advice courtesy of Tufty the squirrel

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