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Central Office of Information (1946-2012)

Film Unit, Sponsor

Main image of Central Office of Information (1946-2012)

Founded on 1 April 1946 as a peacetime successor to the wartime Ministry of Information (MOI) propaganda machine (1939-45), the Central Office of Information (COI) Films Division - and its in-house production body, the Crown Film Unit, which grew out the GPO Film Unit - was rooted in a tradition of filmmaking that is now recognised as the British Documentary Movement. A key task for Clement Attlee's newly-elected Labour government in the postwar period was to help put a war-weary nation 'back on its feet' and there was no better medium at its disposal than film. Much of the resulting output, based around themes of rehabilitation and reconstruction, vividly define the culture and concerns of a country still mourning the loss of nearly half a million of its citizens. And perhaps something of that 'unconquerable spirit' that Hitler had failed to subjugate is captured in such morale-boosting films as The Undefeated (1950), an unsentimental portrayal of a physically disabled ex-glider pilot learning to cope with physical disability and become an active and useful member of the community.

As the devastating economic impact of the war became evident, a spate of films designed to turn the wheels of industry and revivify trade were disseminated - Cotton Come Back (1946) encouraged workers back to the Lancashire textile mills; Furnival and Son (1948) showcased Sheffield steel manufacturing. Life in Her Hands (1951), which transcends its informational purpose in its moving depiction of a young widow's grappling with complex emotional issues, is one of many industrial recruitment films aimed at women. Many women temporarily joined the workforce during the war, only to return to their domestic roles when it ended but, given the drastic labour shortage, the government realised that it was vital to entice women back into industry. While serving their postwar informational purpose, these films also present a fascinating window into an industrial past since dwindled to near-extinction, and the practices of everyday life associated with it.

With the new government came a new social agenda, notably the passing of the National Health Service and National Insurance Acts in 1946, and it was the role of the COI to provide the all-important link between film production units and government departments, in order to bring alive via celluloid and television the facts and implications of new policies to audiences at home and abroad. At the behest of then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, the animation studio, Halas & Batchelor, produced a series of eight lighthearted films featuring Charley, a kind of 'everyman' cartoon character, to convey information about the various reforms - Charley's March of Time (1948), explaining the purpose of the National Insurance Acts of July 1948 or Your Very Good Health (1948), illustrating how the National Health Service operates. The limited screen time available for public information films in cinemas made it necessary to find other means by which these films could be distributed to as broad a cross-section of the public as possible. Until 1952, a fleet of mobile film units equipped with portable projectors were sent to the furthest corners of Britain, where audiences congregated in factory canteens, schools and village halls to be enlightened on issues as diverse as efficient methods of treating head lice and the worrying decline of fish stocks in the North Sea. Shown By Request (1947) describes in detail the operations of the Central Film Library and mobile units, which offered a free loan service for officially produced or acquired films.

Through its Colonial Film Unit, the COI-produced films aimed at audiences in former British colonies. These films were designed to paint a positive image of British culture and its public institutions, as in The British Policeman (1959), which reconstructs a police constable's beat and presents the force as a 'friend of the people'. As well as targeting women at home, Britain turned to its colonies to solve its continuing labour shortage. The series of films under the banner Moslems in Britain (1961-c.1966) are among a number made to market aspects of British working life to overseas audiences.

The demise of the Crown Film Unit in 1952 marked a movement away from centralised official filmmaking, and the longer format public information film all but disappeared. Work was increasingly farmed out to independent companies contracted by the COI on behalf of the government departments sponsoring the films. From the mid-1950s, hundreds of films were produced for cinema and television audiences overseas in the form of cinemagazines or magazine programmes, such as London Line (c. 1966-78) or This Week in Britain (1959-80). The aim of these light news series, which reached their apex in the 1960s, was to project a modern Britain onto the screens of the world and encourage international trade. From a Trooping the Colour ceremony to the launch of Mary Quant's mini shift dress to an interview with Harold Pinter on the set of The Caretaker (d. Clive Donner, 1963), these films provide a kaleidoscopic vision of British culture and innovation during this transitional period.

As television ownership became increasingly commonplace in the 1960s, the 'TV filler' evolved as the dominant form for public information films. It also meant that new and younger audiences could be targeted directly, and such memorable campaigns as the Tufty and the Charley Says cartoons of the 1960s and 70s, aimed at children, have since achieved cult status amongst public information film fans.

If COI films document the public concerns and issues of every generation, Persona non Grata (1962), the feature-length dramatised security training film in which a Russian diplomat tries to recruit a lonely British servant as a spy, evokes the cold-war paranoia permeating the West during this period. Protect and Survive (1975), an instructive series of animated chapters advising the public on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, including 'What to Put in Your Fall-out Room' and 'The Importance of Your Radio', seems unsettlingly naive in its approach given the scale of the imminent threat. The government eventually realised that the campaign would be ultimately ineffectual in the event of a real attack and it never reached our screens. The 1980s iconic AIDS information films, Iceberg, My Place and Monolith, define a nation in the shadow of an epidemic. These films, made by such acclaimed directors as Nicholas Roeg, adopted state-of-the-art advertising techniques to enforce their grim message and pushed form and style to new limits with their chilling, abstract evocations of this new mortal threat.

In 2010 the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government announced a wholesale freeze on marketing and advertising bar a few campaigns deemed 'essential', such as those relating to important health issues or recruitment to the armed forces. Over the following two years operations petered out, and the COI officially ceased to exist on 31st March 2012.

From the early days of post-WWII propaganda to more recent hard-hitting contemporary campaigns on issues such as bullying, binge drinking or child use of the internet, the COI existed as an arena for creativity and its vast and fascinating body of work survives as a chronicle of the ever-changing notion of what it means to be British.

Katy McGahan

Selected credits

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 Children of the Ruins (1948)Children of the Ruins (1948)

Documentary about postwar child poverty, made to promote UNESCO

Thumbnail image of Cotton Come Back (1946)Cotton Come Back (1946)

A plea for workers to revive Britain's cotton industry

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 Help Yourself (1950)Help Yourself (1950)

Witty public information film warning householders about burglary

Thumbnail image of People at No. 19, The (1949)People at No. 19, The (1949)

Fascinating public information film about the perils of syphilis

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 Return to Life (1960)Return to Life (1960)

Documentary on the resettlement of refugees in Britain

Thumbnail image of Robinson Charley (1948)Robinson Charley (1948)

Postwar animation on Britain's need to step up production for export

Thumbnail image of Shown by Request (1947)Shown by Request (1947)

Lyrical doc describing the work of the Central Film Library

Thumbnail image of Talk About Work (1971)Talk About Work (1971)

An introduction for young people to the world of employment

Thumbnail image of Undefeated, The (1950)Undefeated, The (1950)

Inspiring story of an ex-pilot overcoming his disability

Thumbnail image of Worth the Risk? (1948)Worth the Risk? (1948)

Road safety film about how 'accidents always happen to other people'

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