Fasten your seat belts: words of wisdom from a bygone age

From superheroes dressed in green to savvy cats, public information films used to be the norm. Andrew Roberts stops, looks at and listens to some of the best of them

"I am the spirit of dark and lonely water," intones a Donald Pleasence-voiced Grim Reaper as a gang of stage-school children come perilously close to being trapped in a submerged Ford Anglia 105E – an example of the public information film (or PIF) at its finest. The origin of the classic PIF dates from the short films made for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, designed to be shown in cinemas, schools and work canteens.

By the end of the Fifties, mass television ownership led to the development of information films that deliberately employed the techniques of television commercials. If the average motorist could remember "You're never alone with a Strand", then surely they could be trained to memorise Don't Be Rude on the Road – a 1959 series of animated cartoons that recommended hat-doffing at the wheel as a sure cure for potential road rage.

The motoring PIF as we know it was finally born, with announcements from such velvet-voiced actors as Ray Brooks, John Carson, Geoffrey Keen, Joss Ackland, and, of course, the great Patrick Allen. Car owners soon learnt that the phrase "You're driving along" was inevitably the prelude to an unfortunate bit-player earning his standard Equity rate via ignoring a T-junction sign and crashing his Viva HB into some balsa wood disguised as a brick wall.

An alternative form of PIF was to seat a reasonably well-known actor behind a desk and have him gaze sternly into the auto-prompt. By the Seventies, the Central Office of Information was using more vibrant types, such as Edward Judd, best known for his sterling work in The Day the Earth Caught Fire and, in 1978, karate-chopping desks while bellowing "Think Bike!" to the camera.

Some PIFs of this variety remain highly effective: Jimmy Savile's "Clunk, click" delivers the message succinctly, plausibly and, most importantly, without patronising the viewer. However, the use of a well-known personality could prove to be disastrous. The late Sir Gerald Nabarro was a Conservative MP of the "Hang 'em, flog 'em, deport 'em, then give 'em two years' National Service" school who delighted in a handlebar moustache and a fleet of limousines with personalised NAB licence plates. Alas, Sir Gerald's career in fronting road-safety campaigns ceased after his Daimler Sovereign was seen travelling at high speed anti-clockwise around a Hampshire roundabout in 1971.

As for the level of acting in the world of the PIF, the standard expressions employed are happy and sad/dead/constipated. And in contrast to the voice-over, most PIF protagonists boasted strong regional or mockney accents, all the better to highlight their pleb-like mentality. Many of the best performers were well-known stuntmen who could at least be relied not to ham it up. But a few determined thesps saw the PIF as their bid for stardom, as best demonstrated by the glorious B-film acting in the 1959 motorway safety film concerning a howling cad at the wheel of a Ford Zodiac Mk II and his attempt to U-turn on the M1. Sample dialogue: "Damn it, Daphne – I'm late for a board meeting." "No, Clive, you fiend!"

But the real star of the post-war PIF was the BMC ADO16 in its role as the car of doom. In the Sixties and Seventies, Britain was under siege from Morris 1300s that were congenitally unable to keep their distance, and from Austin 1300s luring secretaries to their doom as they ran for a Green Line bus. Possibly the ultimate in BMC 1100 mayhem has to be 1976's The Blunders, in which father, mother and Billy all cause a succession of bit-players to crash as they avoid the Blunders' family Austin 1100 Mk II. Revenge against murderous Longbridge products was taken in another well-known PIF in which a mixture of cross- and radial-ply tyres on a Morris 1100 apparently led to it being dropped on its roof by an off-screen crane. A fitting punishment.

Earlier in the Seventies, the government dispatched Shaw Taylor to the North-east of England to spy on motorists in their Viva HCs. "You haven't clunk-clicked!" he would cry, as he leapt from the nearest bush. Another PIF, dating from 1967, encapsulates an entire era within 30 seconds: if you're going to get plastered at the office party, you really should give your wife the keys to the Austin A60 Cambridge.

Happily, there was always a fine selection of PIFs that were utterly hilarious: a 1956 gem suggesting that female motorists at the wheel of their Triumph Roadster will be so engrossed in applying their lipstick that they will neglect to give the appropriate hand signal; or a 1963 effort with lowly, trilby-hatted sorts stealing Saab 96 2-Strokes. Then there were those PIFs aimed at children: Charley Says, The Green Cross Code and Tufty, the squirrel.

The road-crossing rodent had first appeared in 1953, but it was not until nearly two decades later that toddlers everywhere would learn to associate the dulcet tones of Bernard Cribbins with squirrel-related highway mayhem. Even now, there are adults in their forties who still hear the voice of Mr Cribbins and instantly think of being run over by a toy Morris Marina driven by a stuffed hare, should they ever have the urge for a 99 Flake.

As for The Green Cross Code, it replaced Kerb Drill in 1970. After the Central Office of Information experimented with code publicity in the form of Squawky the parrot, followed by the well-intentioned "Splink" campaign (which required Mensa membership to follow its instructions), they devised the Green Cross Code Man. Surely, children could not fail to respond to the imposing David Prowse, and all that was now required was to overdub his West Country tones with Patrick Allen's dry voice and a television icon was born. By 1978, he was allowed to use his own voice.

Several PIFs were shown on television for 20 years, and to see one now is to time-travel in a way most feature films cannot achieve with their professional extras and expert art direction. The PIF offers a glimpse at a lost country of newsagents offering 20 Woodbines for 4s 7d (23p), of kerbsides still innocent of any yellow lines or parking meters, and of a brave new world where the introduction of automated level crossings required a detailed explanation.

But the most effective entries still have the power to shock: the 1975 epic that starts with a close-up of a four-year-old girl and the quiet announcement "This child has only 60 seconds to live", or the shot of a distraught father leaving a coroner's court with the voice-over of "The steering and brakes were in excellent order – but the deceased was not wearing her seat belt". As with the best feature films, it is the suggestion that works.

By 1997, the Central Office of Information sold its film catalogue to a private archive, and, although PIFs continue to this day, the old wartime formula of a BBC-style voice-over guiding gormless plebs away from danger is no more.

No longer will frying chips at the wheel of a Morris 1100 Mk II Deluxe in a fog while driving too fast in the rain towards a pylon on cross- and radial-ply tyres cause a Rada graduate to utter the immortal words: "Hey you! Don't you know how dangerous that is?" Still, if a generation was prevented from playing near canals by the voice of Donald Pleasence – or a cartoon cat voiced by Kenny Everett – then the work of the PIF cannot have been entirely in vain.

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