Tales of the City: Masterpieces of fright

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The Independent Online

I'm a connoisseur of shock advertising. I grew up in the golden age of public-information films, those minatory, 20-second masterpieces of fright from the Central Office of Information, in which every suburban street seemed to feature a car hurtling into a child (cut to eloquent shot of pram on side with wheel spinning), and every domestic interior contained 17 objects, from bleach bottles to roller skates, that could bring death to the unwary. We were warned about everything, sometimes twice before bedtime: don't relight dud fireworks; don't dump old refrigerators on rubbish tips, or some child will get trapped inside; don't nod off while you're driving; don't abandon your granny on the hard shoulder of the M4...

I'm a connoisseur of shock advertising. I grew up in the golden age of public-information films, those minatory, 20-second masterpieces of fright from the Central Office of Information, in which every suburban street seemed to feature a car hurtling into a child (cut to eloquent shot of pram on side with wheel spinning), and every domestic interior contained 17 objects, from bleach bottles to roller skates, that could bring death to the unwary. We were warned about everything, sometimes twice before bedtime: don't relight dud fireworks; don't dump old refrigerators on rubbish tips, or some child will get trapped inside; don't nod off while you're driving; don't abandon your granny on the hard shoulder of the M4...

Sometimes, I'd spot a public-info film whose message ran exactly counter to what was intended – like the one telling you what to do if your chip-pan catches alight. It showed a woman hurling a bucket of water over the flames whereupon the whole kitchen becomes an inferno. The trouble was, I just knew that when my chip-pan did catch fire, and I stood there aghast wondering what to do, the whole water-throwing scenario that I'd seen so often would be precisely, Pavlovianly, the course of action that I'd choose.

I'm also a fan of drinking-and-driving advertisements, the ones that get press coverage because they're so tragic. I'm often amazed at the skill and economy with which they launch a direct assault on your vulnerable and/or sentimental bits, and gleefully trample on them. But sometimes, even professional shock adverts get it wrong.

The Barnardo's ads currently doing the rounds are a case in point. There are four, each displaying a child-abuse victim with a wizened and weary old-person's face superimposed on the child's innocent physiognomy. Each image has a looming, headless grown-up in the frame, sometimes touching the child's face, and the payoff line is: "Abuse through prostitution steals children's lives."

They're powerful images, but there's something wrong with the one that can be seen on hoardings all over London. It's of a little girl who sits hunched on a bed wearing the face of what looks like a Mexican charlady. I've driven past the picture a dozen times and it always seems to give the wrong message. It's because, presumably for reasons of taste, the advertisers have removed the figure of the snoozing pederast in the background, that can be seen in other versions of the advert. This is a mistake. We're left with a picture of what seems like a prematurely aged hooker looking sad on a hotel bed. The advertisement could easily be saying: "Don't try prostitution as a career, girls, or you'll end up looking like this."

Barnardo's present campaign is a laudable attempt to change the laws of the country regarding child prostitution. You would think that this is a social blot that everyone who is involved in law, from the Lord Chief Justice to a traffic warden, would be keen to eradicate. Wouldn't you? But the law as it stands doesn't protect children who are deemed to be on the game, nor is it (yet) an offence to involve children in having sex for money.

How unsettling it is to find that this Dickensian state of affairs exists, amid all our hand-wringing about paedophilia. But the last thing we should do is to confuse the issue of who is doing wrong. As the Barnardo's people are keen to point out, kids don't make an informed choice to go into prostitution; they get there through being manipulated and exploited by adults. You have to show the adults who use them as playthings, in order to show where the wrongdoing lies. You have to show how casually, how thoughtlessly, grown-ups screw up young lives. You won't do that by airbrushing them out of the picture, to spare adult feelings.

Profligate, parsimonious or just plain potty

The most unputdownable anthology since James Walton's Faber Book of Smoking has been keeping me up half the night: it's Brewer's Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages, by William Donaldson, ex-producer of Beyond the Fringe, and the man responsible for that practical joke, The Henry Root Letters. There's much to savour about this volume, such as the ridiculously tantalising index and cross-references: anybody who happens to look up "Sado-masochistic pornography in Europe, the most comprehensive library of", will be directed to "see Edinburgh, Prince Philip, Duke of".

The thousand entries include two-year-old Brooklyn Beckham (on the grounds that he becomes fretful unless all his toys are lined up in a certain order, and may therefore suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, like his dad), and William Archer, father of Jeffrey, who, with the help of a bogus degree from Oxford, set up a charity that claimed to be raising money for injured soldiers (does that sound familiar?).

The eccentrics win hands down over the rogues and villains in the entertainment stakes. I was glad to be reminded of Lord Berners, the composer, who tried to avoid bores on trains by affecting a black skullcap and thick black spectacles, leaning out of the window of his compartment and beckoning to other passengers to join him. If the plan backfired and somebody did join him, he made sure that they soon left by (as Donaldson discreetly puts it) "taking his temperature anally every five minutes with a large clinical thermometer".

But my favourite entry is for Baroness Victoria-Josepha Sackville ( pictured), the half- Spanish mother of Vita Sackville-West. She was as mad as a balloon, especially about money, alternating profligacy and parsimony. She once left a cheque for £20,000 (from J Pierpont Morgan, made out to "Bearer") in a taxi and blithely forgot about it, but she would carefully piece together the un-postmarked bits of several stamps to form a whole one, rather than waste money down at the post office. When afflicted with sore throats, her remedy was to tie a pair of Sir Edwin Lutyens's socks around her neck. And during the First World War, she wrote to Lord Kitchener to complain about the call-up policy, which was playing hell with the servant population: "I think perhaps you do not realise, my dear Lord K, that we employ five carpenters, four painters, and two footmen, and you are taking them all from us! I do not complain about the footmen, though I never thought to see parlour-maids at Knole... parlour-maids are so middle-class." That should have stopped the old brute in his tracks.

Hungry for more reality TV

I have bellyached perhaps too much in the past about the iniquities of reality TV, so it's kinda hard to admit how entranced I am by a TV show which involves members of the public talking to each other over a meal and a glass of wine. It's BBC2's Diners, half an hour of eavesdropping on strangers' conversations – with a brace of famous faces thrown in for the lazy-minded. Last week we could admire the spectacle of Michael Winner attempting to amuse the divine Cherie Lunghi by telling her stories full of effing and blinding and blowjobs (how did the poor woman stand it? But then, why was she dining with the slitty-eyed old Muppet anyway? She didn't sound as if she liked him much).

Far more fun were the unknowns. A square-chinned Airtours blonde called Avril stroked her golden locks and remarked on her friend's figure ("I can't take my eyes off your boobs") as we gradually absorbed the information that Avril had been through a recent "gender realignment". The topic of physical adjustment was a popular one. "You look very well – you haven't had surgery have you?" the perma-charming Winner enquired of his bridling guest. At a nearby table, Paul, a camp hairdresser, surveyed Winner with professional distaste. "His hair... he must have had it waved at the back..." he told Lisa, his date, bitchily. Best of all were Diane and Veronica, two ladies of a certain age who had worked in a Cardiff department store for 40 years and met when they were trainees. Done up to the nines, genteel and full of Rank Charm School poise, they proceeded to tell risqué stories, belch, recall disgusting operations ("I could've put my knuckle into the hole in my face. I could have been blinded by that haematoma. [Pause]. So we have so much to be thankful for...") and go off into knicker-wetting giggles about the likely fate of a fat goldfish.

It was priceless. Tomorrow, you can earwig Lady Victoria Hervey's table talk in the last show of this very short run. Can we have it on every week, please?

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