The wonderful world of public information films

There is a wonderful new podcast on the BBC. It’s called Boring Talks. I featured the show’s presenter, James Ward, in a post I did a couple of years ago when I reviewed his book Adventures in Stationery. As I pointed out Ward was also the man behind the Boring Conference, which the website defines as “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”. Now the BBC has brought these talks to world of podcasts. Topics so far have included book-pricing algorithms wooden pallets and the Argos catalogue. As the BBC website explains: “Behind every boring subject is another layer of boringness you could have never imagined.” The podcast I’m going to talk about came out about two weeks ago.

Long before The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge, 1864, and The Legacy, Danish directors were making films for international audiences. Between 1935 and 1965 the government funded hundreds of short films in many languages, with topics from brick making to the dangers of riding motorbikes. Boring Talks #08 – Danish Public Information Films is given by Dr Claire Thomson, an academic from the UCL School of European Languages, Culture and Society, a world authority on these years, known as the golden age of Danish public information films. If this subject has tickled your fancy, Thomson has just published a new book. The Edinburgh University Press hardback of Short Films from a Small Nation: Danish Informational Cinema 1935-1965. It is available for £75 from Amazon in the United Kingdom. But you need to hurry up – there are only three in stock.

The problem with the podcast is that you have to imagine them. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be difficult to find these gems online. We tend to think that everything is on the internet, but alas there are many things you just cannot find. I have searched far and wide for How a Brick Comes into Being, Here are the Railways or a musical short about the history of the potato, but I failed in my mission. but we do have this talk by Thomson, where we can see clips of some of these films:

In Britain it was the Central Office of Information, COI which was responsible for these films. The COI has produced a wide range of information campaigns designed to inform the public on a huge range of issues which affect their daily lives, such as health, safety, rights, education and what to do in a nuclear war. These films have been educating, persuading and above all warning us about hidden dangers for more than seventy years.

I remember some of them when I was growing up. One of the most memorable was the famous clunk-click. What we didn’t know was that Jimmy Savile, the public face of the campaign would turn out to be a predatory sex offender.

There were a couple of iconic AIDS films in the mid-1980s:

But I really enjoy the black and white ones. Here is one from 1948 about sneezing in public:

This 1948 short is about the coming National Health Service:

In America they are known as the public service announcements. What I like to explore are those films which reflect different mores of those years. We have this film about being on the lookout for homosexuals:

And know I know how to spot a communist:

I thought I would finish with a parody of these educational films, Jamie Donahue’s 2004 short, Billy’s Dad is a Fudge-Packer. Her ten-minute film is satirises the wholesome image of the traditional 1950s family and is a naughty version of the Carry On films full of nudge-nudge, wink-wink sexual innuendos and obscene visual gags. Enjoy!


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