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Help Yourself (1950)


Main image of Help Yourself (1950)
35mm, black and white, 12 mins
DirectorJohn Waterhouse
Production CompanyPublic Relationship Films
SponsorsCentral Office of Information
 Home Office
ProducerRichard Massingham

Cast: John Salew (Joe); Michael Balfour (Charlie)

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A professional burgler illustrates the simple measures householders can take to protect their homes from burglary.

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"I've been asked to come before you to recount some of my experiences, I... I... hope you enjoy them". Delivered direct-to-camera by Help Yourself's protagonist, Joe the Burglar, these opening words invite us into a murky world of petty crime and housebreaking, landmarked by seedy pubs, pawnshops and run-ins with the law. The film adopts the point of view of the cheerfully amoral Joe, who 'works' for a living like everyone else, albeit ransacking people's homes at Christmas time. Like any satisfied businessman, Joe praises his customers for their "extraordinary helpfulness" and for "leaving windows open and keys where they can easily be found."

The constraints of propagandist aims, low budgets and limited running time meant that makers of public information films had to be at their most inventive and resourceful. Here, the stylistics of contemporary, gritty postwar crime features are drawn upon to drive the film's propagandist message home, with shadowy lighting, seedy milieu and an agitated soundtrack becoming tools of public enlightenment. Shorthand visual devices succinctly convey narrative information; the film's denouement unfolds in just a couple of shots. Fleeing the law, Joe boards the number 59 bus. A close-up of the bus's destination panel implies that Joe might be on his way to Brixton Prison - an implication neatly confirmed by a shot of a defeated-looking Joe in prison garb.

Many postwar COI films were designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of our social institutions in reforming wayward citizens, in films like A Man on Trial (1952) or Children on Trial (1946). There is no such suggestion of rehabilitation for Joe. In comedy, central characters typically do not fundamentally change, and here, Joe is presented as an irredeemable threat. After a short stretch at Her Majesty's Pleasure, he is once again a visceral presence down the local pub (never more visceral than when he hacks up a lungful of phlegm into a dirty handkerchief, before knocking back a 'pint of wallop' before his next 'job'). The onus is on us: as long as we remain careless and complacent, social parasites like Joe will thrive. This is propaganda at its most entertaining.

Help Yourself was distributed to cinemas and non-theatrical venues to coincide with a Home Office touring exhibition, 'The Burglar and You', which was displayed in cinema foyers, department stores and other public spaces. Screenings were often accompanied by a lecture in crime detection by local Chief Constables.

Katy McGahan

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'The COI Collection Volume 1: Police and Thieves'.

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Video Clips
1. Call me Joe (3:33)
2. A good day (2:36)
Complete film (11:57)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Massingham, Richard (1898-1953)
Central Office of Information (1946-2012)