Monday, 18 May 2015

Charley Says

I have wanted this dvd for some time, but I think I was probably fearful of it bringing back too many memories of my 1970s childhood, which it has, and also that it would be like watching TV with ones maiden aunt, which is exactly the impression it gives. The subtitle to the DVD reads 'More than 280 live and animated classics from the Central Office of Information archives.' Watched back-to-back they certainly do give a strange impression, in fact have unnerved me to the point where I've just nearly turned a lightswitch off with a wet hand. 
This is not something I'm accustomed to doing, and would normally dry my hands or use my elbow. That said, to go by these films, the Britain of the 1970s was full of people who went fishing near overhead lines, drink drove, crossed the road without looking, put lit fireworks in their pockets, didn't wear seatbelts, painted polystyrene ceiling tiles with gloss paint (I can't begin to think how bad a gloss-painted ceiling would look), wedge fire doors open, leave bottles on beaches, and so on. The wonder is there's anyone left at all.
The sad thing is, the world is full of people who do these sorts of things all the time. They're called idiots. And the Central Office of Information failed, in my opinion, to account for the fact that idiots think no harm can ever come to them. Also the simple fact is that public information films tend to be attended to by those of a careful mindset. I'm afraid I'm left with the terrible conclusion that these public information films were a fantastic waste of public money.
Of course the 1970s were one of the points that made a sea change in views of safety here, with the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, which is essentially still in force and smoothed out previous industry-specific laws. In my work place we have a thermometer marked with the Shops and Factories Act of 1961. It has been bought in the past few years, and I'm so pleased the design hasn't changed in all those years. In the 1970s, though, a number of things came together, industrial unrest, change in the law, the assertive trades union activism of the time. So these films focus both on rights and duties or privileges.
It is also interesting to see the different world portrayed. People obviously didn't routinely wear seatbelts. Decimal currency and pelican crossings were things that people had to become accustomed to. There are warnings about lighting a paraffin heater without the room being ventilated – I can't remember the last time I saw a paraffin heater. There is a point at which a film tells you what to do if you have a water leak, and it shows the householder turning off the electricity. The fuse box it shows is one of those old ones with the wire, which were a right royal pain the arse to replace if it blew. Which of course highlights the fact that approaches to safety have changed nowadays – there is a wider acceptance that the world is full of idiots, and safety tends to be built in. The man shown using a power tool with a home-made plug which results in electrocution would have been much safer with a modern fuse box. That said, I have gone to much trouble to find some round-pin plugs for the lighting circuit in my swanky new apartment. My dad would laugh hollowly at me buying 'old' plugs in 2015. My friend in South Africa, though, maintains they are the only normal ones. She doesn't accept that they only have those plugs because SA was electrified by the British, nor does she accept that our modern plugs are both the most painful in the world to tread on and the safest in the world because of their multiple inbuilt safety features.
My point here of course is that a lot of these messages were wasted. Some were just plain wrong, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the 'stranger danger' which dominated government safety films for decades. It's wrong. It's always been wrong. We are all most likely to beabused, beaten, and murdered by someone we know. That is the simple fact of human behaviour. Statistically we are safer with complete strangers! Apart from anything else, paedophiles tend to be cunning, secretive, and convincing.There is one particular advertisement which tells children not to accept lifts from strangers. The paedophiles were too canny for that. In fact, in true chilling 1970s style, the paedophiles were actually making the safety films. Several of them on the DVDs are narrated by Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville. Saville is dressed respectably in a suit rather than his trademark tracksuit and string vest, but Harris needn't think he's appearing on my blog with a shirt on. (I'm still thinking of calling it Topless on Television). Anyway, if you're a paedophile, public life and a respectable persona of being concerned for da kids is obviously a good way to hide your intentions.
I had also forgotten how fatalistic the 1970s were – I remember them from the time but had forgotten that public information used to tell us what to do in the event of a nuclear strike. I remember my mother having a wardrobe full of hoarded tinned goods just in case. I had forgotten that we were told what to do. I had forgotten I knew that you could come out after two days, and if anyone died in the shelter you should bury them after five days. That was the level of detail we were given in the Protect and Survive series of leaflets and films, and they were widely criticised at the time for the likelihood of their public effect making a nuclear strike more likely.
Of course what we were fearing never happened… exactly. In Europe it waited for the 80s and happened in the Ukraine, at Chernobyl. Modern nuclear reactors are built with safety features which cannot be overridden, but at Chernobyl they thought they would see what would happen if you did exactly what the manual told you not to. This is the real lesson of Charley Says: the world remains full of idiots who can't be trusted to run a bath, let alone run a nuclear reactor!

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