In 1938, an amateur filmmaker named Raymond Massingham decided it was high time he left his position as Senior Medical Officer at the London Fever Hospital. Massingham had long harboured a desire to turn his passion for films into a profession and had garnered a degree of success with a number of shorts, most notably Tell Me If It Hurts, which tells the story of a traumatic dental appointment. Despite a very respectable vocation, Massingham, always insecure in his chosen profession and a hypochondriac, left the hospital and embarked upon a professional career in filmmaking by first registering his company, Public Relationship Films (PRF).
During the Second World War, Massingham began to direct films for a number of government departments, including the Ministry of Information, and appear onscreen in such Wartime instructional shorts as Post Early for Christmas and Coughs & Sneezes. These proved to be very popular, firmly establishing PRF as the preferred source for information films in the United Kingdom.
Following Massingham’s death in 1953, and with the Central Office of Information (CIO) now having taken on responsibility for Private Information Films (PIFs), each new short was offered for free to broadcasters as a way to fill any unused advertising time between programming, becoming a mainstay on television during the 1960s until the late 1980s, as ostensibly ‘filler’ content.
But, for children of the 1970s and ’80s, in particular, the PIFs were undoubtedly the source of nightmares, especially when sandwiched between the routine mundanity of learning the times table and writing composition. These terrifying jolts of information skewed our childish notions of a luminous world of toys, play and laughter into a much darker, frightening and foreboding place of monsters and misery. For most, it would have been our first experience of the harsh realities of the world, and death that lurked, insidious and unguarded, even in the sanctuary of our homes. Titles such as Don’t Leave Your Children Alone, Never Go With Strangers and the harmlessly-appellated but horrific Apaches, drove us from the classroom in tears or, for me at least, to the playground to excitedly discuss and make sense of what we’d just witnessed.
Whether you remember sitting in class, wide-eyed and terrified while watching a Public Information Film or have never, until now, experienced their singular unsettling ‘pleasures’, then take a look below…
Never Go With Strangers
This 1971 PIF features a series of alarmingly creepy men attempting to abscond with children via the promise of puppies, goldfish, sweets and all manner of delights as a stern voiceover warns that any of the potential kidnappers, “might be a bit odd in the head.”
The film compares the scenarios that follow to the Grimms’ tales of Hansel & Gretel and Red Riding Hood, and The Arabian Nights fable of Aladdin, albeit with a warning that while the fairytales end happily the same may not occur in reality.
In the most disturbing sequence, a shadow of the man breathing heavily looms over a young, clearly terrified, girl. As he continues to approach, the voiceover declares ominously, “…and she can’t do anything about it!”
Now regarded as one of the darkest of the PIFs, despite some very strong competition, Apaches (directed by John Mackenzie, who also famously helmed The Long Good Friday) follows the adventures of seven friends as they play at Cowboys and Indians, in and around a farm.
Narrated by their leader, Danny (who insists that he be called Geronimo or Chief), one-by-one the friends succumb to a number of horrific accidents, including falling under tractor wheels, drowning in slurry, and being crushed by a falling metal fence. While all of the deaths are unpleasant, the sound of one of the children, Sharon, screaming “Mummy!” as she dies from poisoning is particularly disturbing.
Cut between each death scene, Danny’s narration centres on a party his parents are getting ready to host. It’s only after Danny’s own death do we realised that his parents were not preparing for a celebration at all.
Don’t Leave Your Children Alone
“Last Christmas, I hung the little angels on the Christmas tree and Steven helped me. And then, Mum and Dad went out to a party.”
It should go without saying that no parent should leave their children alone in the house. This short PIF from Christmas 1982 demonstrates very succinctly the tragic impact of a worst-case-scenario. We hear the voice of a little girl talking merrily of the previous Christmas and the fun of dressing the Christmas tree with her younger brother. The joy quickly turns to horror as the girl tells of waking to a smoke-filled house and her brother crying, ending with, “And then, Steven stopped crying. That was last Christmas.”
We then see the little girl asleep on the bottom bed frame of a bunk bed; the mattress on the top frame has been removed.
The most chilling of the PIFs must surely go to Lonely Water. Broadcast in 1973 and narrated by Donald Pleasance, who voices the faceless, robed figure that haunts the watersides, Lonely Water (also known as The Spirit of the Lonely Water) begins:
“I am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool, and this is the kind of place you’d expect to find me.”
Originally conceived following a large number of deaths by drowning, Lonely Water’s intention was to ensure that children thought twice before entering any body of water. Instead, for many, it scared them away from swimming permanently.
Katy McGahan, writing for the BFI, said Lonely Water was, “eerily redolent of Nicolas Roeg‘s Don’t Look Now…..plays like a distilled horror film, deploying the menacing tone and special effects normally the preserve of x-rated cinema shockers.”
Despite the Central Office of Information closing in 2011, the impact of the Public Information Film lingers on. Now viewed by many as something of a curio from a time when disturbing informational films could be shown to impressionable pre-teens without cause for reproach – and despite the sometimes dubious quality of acting talent on display – the films still retain their power to shock and unsettle.