Public information, 1940s style

EMMA LEE To mark the 60th anniversary of the Central Office of Information, a collection of public information films from the late 1940s are being given a rare showing at Cinema City in Norwich. EMMA LEE takes a look.


Stop, look, listen; clunk click every trip; and think before you drink before you drive are all memorable slogans from public information films produced by the Central Office of Information (COI).

For the last 60 years, the government department has been producing films on a range of topics - from the danger of accepting sweets from strangers to how to survive a nuclear explosion to the iconic Aids awareness adverts from the 1980s - to keep the population safe and informed.

Some of them, like the Charley Says, Tufty Club and the Kevin Keegan and the Green Cross Code Man campaigns have become cult classics - they're as much a part of the 1970s as flares and platform shoes.

And to mark the anniversary a special joint British Film Institute and COI event, called How To Survive The 1940s, is being held at Cinema City in Norwich on Sunday and Monday, November 5 and 6.

It's a rare opportunity to see five films which give a fascinating insight into the post-war era.

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The COI was the peacetime successor to the Ministry of Information, and one of its key tasks was to put the war-weary nation back on its feet.

The COI Films Division had its own in-house production unit, the Crown Film Unit, which grew out of the GPO Film Unit. It was rooted in a tradition of film-making that's now recognised as the British Documentary Movement, which is responsible for some of the most memorable British films ever made.

The films were shown in cinemas but because they had a limited screen time, and this was way before every home had a TV set, alternative ways of reaching the population had to be found to justify their state invested production.

So a fleet of mobile film units, equipped with portable projectors, was sent to the furthest corners of the country where audiences gathered in factory canteens, schools and village halls to be educated about a range of issues as diverse as how to treat head lice and the decline of fish stocks in the North Sea.

As well as being a nostalgia trip, the films, which are preserved and have been restored by the BFI National Film and Television Archive, are important social historical documents and say a lot about the way the country's culture has evolved.

Much of the COI's output immediately after the war was based around the themes of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

For example, The People At No 19 deals with the disruptive effects of war on a couple's relationship. But it also includes a familiar theme - sexual health.

Another Case of Poisoning is about the importance of good food hygiene and Help Yourself is about home security.

Worth the Risk? is a road safety film. And Your Children's Meals advises how to get fussy eaters to clear their plates.

“Be firm, but do not fuss. Let the child eat in company. Make meals look attractive. And insist on a regular routine,” they advise.

Move over, Supernanny.

As well as reflecting a turbulent era in the country's history, the film's portrayal of their subject matter was innovative - Another Case of Poisoning has a complex flashback structure, while Your Children's Meals marries live action and animation.

The screening is an offshoot of two-month-long event marking 60 years of COI films held at the National Film Theatre in London.

BFI non-fiction curator Katy McGahan worked on the project.

“It gave us a chance to restore some of the old films,” she says. “Quite a lot of them had only been shown when they were released, and the anniversary was a good opportunity to show them.

“I think my favourite film is Another Case of Poisoning. It has a very black humour to it.

“They deal with quite similar themes to current ones, and it's interesting to see how mores and attitudes have changed.

“And they encapsulate their eras. There's a thread of humour running through these films. There's a huge collection of them, so it was quite difficult to just choose five. And there's a real growing interest in this type of non-fiction film, which is heartening,” she says.

She says that she was struck by the way people's attitude towards the government has changed over time.

“You have this authoritative voice instructing mothers how to go about their family life.

“I think there was less scepticism then. In these films you have this 'voice of God' - and these days we laugh about it. I think there's a lot less reverence towards the government now.”

How to Survive the 1940s (certificate PG) is showing at Cinema City at the Playhouse on Sunday November 5 at 8.15pm and Monday November 6 at 2.30pm. Sunday's showing will be introduced by Stewart Orr, of the East Anglian Film Archive. For information phone 01603 622047 or visit

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