April's Midweek Movie - films and discussion

06 May 2016

This month we highlight a collection of historical public information films which have been made available online by the BFI (British Film Institute) and discuss trends in public information dissemination using film.

For this month’s Midweek Movie I have chosen to highlight a collection of films, rather than pick a specific short film. The BFI (British Film Institute) have recently made a collection of historical public information films freely available online. These films cover decades of the 20th century – from the black and white public information films of the 1940s and 50s to the AIDS awareness films of the 1980s. Many in the collection are from the 1960s and 70s – a public information 'golden age' which produced a large amount of short information films on a wide range of topics including littering, smoking cessation, ‘stranger danger’, railway, water and road safety.

During our film and discussion session we watched a selection of films from the archive, looking for trends in the ways information can be disseminated to the public using film.

Films of the 1940s and 50s

Early public information films like ‘Coughs and Sneezes’ (1945) are quite prescriptive and a little patronising – treating the protagonist as a child being told off for sneezing without a handkerchief. However, the tone of the films is often jovial and these can be an engaging way for the modern viewer to look at the way public information was disseminated around the second world war.

The films of this time generally raise awareness of basic principles (such as infectious disease transmission) which would have often been new to the audience of the time, as well as giving practical advice.

Films of the 1960s and 70s

Moving into the 60s and 70s, we observed the tone of the films changing, with a distinct lack of humour in contrast to some of the wartime era films. The hard-hitting film ‘The Sewing Machine’ (1973), focuses on road safety for children and has a very sombre, fairly horrific tone compared with earlier films. Across the selection of films from this period we see an increasing focus on the safety of children and films aimed at children.

One noticeable difference from the 1940s and 50s films is the in this period the films don’t often offer practical advice – in many cases simply saying ‘don’t do that’ rather than ‘if this happens, do this’.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, the ‘Charley Says’ series portrays a cartoon cat giving safety lessons to a young boy, aimed at raising awareness among children of household and neighbourhood hazards like fire and scalding. This series is notably lighthearted and amusing, especially when compared with the much darker, live-action films.

Films of the 1980s

The AIDS awareness films of the 1980s, such as ‘Monolith’ and ‘Iceberg’ (both 1985), can be seen as a return to the 1940s and 50s films in the way that they are raising awareness of basic information which would have been new to the audience at the time. However, the tone is very dark and aimed to instil fear – as well as using terms which modern public awareness campaigns would not use, for example ‘infected persons’ and ‘catching AIDS’.

At the end of both films, again, not much practical information is given beyond ‘protect yourself’. The audience is shown and instructed to read a leaflet for further information, however it’s not overtly stated where you can obtain one (the memorable John Hurt voiceover simply states ‘read this leaflet when it arrives’). This is a noticeable difference from modern campaigns which tend to explicitly give the audience instructions for accessing further information – for example telephone helplines, campaign websites, and Twitter handles and hashtags.

The films in the collection are enjoyable to watch as a bit of a journey into the past age of public information provision and also useful as tools to encourage people to think about how information can be shared – the films provide examples of what is especially effective and also what might be less effective in engaging your audience. I’d encourage anyone working in communications, particularly in public health, to browse the archive and see what lessons you can learn to help you provide clear, engaging messages to the public.


About the author

Sheena Fletcher Digital Communications Officer


Sheena was the Centre's Digital Comms Officer from 2012-22 and was responsible for management and development of the Centre's websites and social media. 

Sheena also designed infographics and animations to help promote key findings and increase the accessibility of the Centre's research.

Read all articles by Sheena Fletcher