Get off the road!

alvin

Picture a twenty-inch colour TV, the square cathode ray type, sitting on a table in the corner of the lounge one afternoon during the early nineteen eighties. On the screen is a small child, speaking with a dolly. “Now, Lucy,” she tells the doll, “Mummy says we can play outside on our own. But we must be VERY CAREFUL OF THE MAIN ROAD.”

Cut to a busy town street, traffic zooming past, the Doppler effect in full swing. The little girl is outside. She may or may not be walking to the shops.

“Ooh, look, Lucy!” she suddenly exclaims in the sort of excited voice children keep in reserve for when they’re offered sweets or ice cream. “A doggy!”

The canine in question is on the other side of the street. There’s no adult. She barrels out into the road. There is a screech. A thump. And then, for added pathos, a female voice, coming from inside the house. “Debbie! Come inside and write in Daddy’s birthday card!”

I have searched in vain for this on YouTube, but in a way I’m glad I couldn’t find it. Because it meant I had to write it down in order to properly set the scene, and – in the process – I realised how much comes back to me even after thirty years, even after having only ever seen it once. The names are about the only thing I had to make up; everything else is more or less etched in stone. I think there may be a reason for that.

When I think about it, many of my strongest televisual memories are connected with death. I can recall the climax of Tottie: The Story of A Doll’s House, in which the scheming Marchpane succeeds in setting Birdie on fire. I can remember one of the closing scenes in the 1984 adaptation of Goodbye Mr Chips – not the oft-imitated deathbed exchange (“I have had children…thousands of ’em…all boys”), but the sight of Roy Marsden lying spread-eagled on the floor of his study. Staying with the school theme I can remember the death of Jeremy when he was larking about in the swimming pool at the end of an episode of Grange Hill. I remember an installment of Ulysses 31 in which Ulysses is captured by Chronus / Chronos, the god of time, who succeeds in ageing the slumbering crew of the Odyssey until they reach the end of their lives, although Ulysses is able to put things right again. It gave me nightmares for years weeks, as did the scene in Scrooge! in which Albert Finney comes face to face with Death and appears to descend into hell (at 2:40).

Closer to home, I blogged over a year ago – right back when I started this particular online foray – about how my first Who memory was of the death of Adric. Reading back over it now it strikes me as awfully pretentious writing. I’m going on about the reason “memory doesn’t begin at birth”, blocking out memories “because it’s easier than having to remember what they were actually like” and the instinctive reaction to make “the loudest noise you can make”. Not long after that I received an email from Gareth, who remarked “Come on, Matthew Waterhouse’s acting isn’t that bad”.

Ah, but those Public Information Films. If you’re reading this in the U.S. and don’t know what I’m talking about (and one doesn’t necessarily follow from the other, of course), you might call them Public Service Announcements. When I imagine an American PSA I automatically think of a crying Indian (I’m not linking to that; look it up yourselves). Or I think of the South Park episode where they suggest duck-and-cover as a response to a volcanic eruption. I’m sure there’s far more to it than this (and I’m happy for people to educate me) but I’m afraid my knowledge is strictly British, and it must be said that as far as creeping out the kids is concerned, we can hold our own.

“Can you imagine,” said Emily when I was describing the road safety advert at the beginning of this entry over lunch earlier, “the reaction if they showed that advert to children today? Can you even imagine them showing it?”

“I sincerely doubt it,” I said. “I don’t think they’re quite as hot on scaring kids today. It’s all dressed up. I don’t think people die nearly as much on TV as they used to, or if they do it’s usually accompanied by over-scored music and slow motion. People seem to be frightened of upsetting children, but when I was a kid that was the whole point.”

And it was. There was, as far as I can remember, comparatively little moral handwringing over some of the frankly hideous Public Information films that were screened from the sixties to the eighties. Like thieves in the night, you never knew when they were coming. There was no press campaign, no front page Daily Mail story. No buildup. They just appeared and then disappeared, as much a part of the fabric as the test card girl or the title music to the Six O’Clock News, or the mediocrity of early afternoon game shows. They were brought in to warn you about the dangers of – well, everything, really. If the Central Office of Information was to believed we were living in a world of perpetual hazards, where death lurked on every corner, ready to strike at the first opportunity. Fat fryers. Motorway diversions. Farmyard equipment. Refrigerators. Nothing was safe, because, well, nothing is safe. The United Kingdom was a dangerous place, full of paedophiles and dangerous drivers, encapsulated on film in perpetual washed-out colour and with a higher body count than your average Midsomer Murders. It’s a miracle we were even allowed out.

Here, for example, is Spider-Man villain Electro’s unknown backstory.

Never mind the fact that the opening shot bears a striking resemblance to Flight of the Navigator (years too early) and the Blake’s Seven-esque soundtrack. Who’s the bigger fool here? The fool, or the fool who is (metaphorically) pushed by her? You can picture slippered, moustachioed parents lecturing their children after some minor misdemeanour with the oft-used but newly-adapted “Why’d you do it, Jimmy? I mean why? Because Amy told you to? And I suppose that if Amy told you to go into an electrical substation to retrieve a Frisbee, you’d do that as well?” – which is, I’ve just realised, the Question That Must Never Be Answered (what do you know, it really was hidden in plain sight).

Firework videos were also very popular, particularly this one, which was re-run every year in some form or another until at least the mid-1980s, when Hale and Pace took over.

It does rather overstate the point, but on the other hand I’m thirty-four and have never touched a spent firework, so perhaps it fulfils its purpose.

Perhaps most chilling of all was a video that I never saw as a kid, purely because of geography. Titled Apaches, it’s a half-hour tale of misery and woe about six children who play at Cowboys and Indians. The games are fun but the environments are dangerous, and by the end, all but one of them will be dead.

Let me save the busier amongst you some time: the deaths (or the moments that lead up to them) are at 05:10, 10:41, 16:40, 21:01 and 24:25. I will leave it to you to discover the manner of the children’s demise; that’s part of the fun. Suffice to say that everyone gets what’s coming to them: they are all silly children who deserve it, and indeed the fatalities in this video are just Darwin at work, sparing us the very real possibility of these stupid ten-year-olds growing up just enough to reach puberty, claim benefits and breed. I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood where our local school was built upon farmland, rather than being anywhere near it, and as such we were denied the joy of this grim morality tale, which was presumably considered irrelevant for townies (instead we had to put up with the locally-filmed Stranger Danger video, shot in the park where I once broke my arm, and starring an extremely intelligent terrier who sounded a lot like Richard Briers). Emily, who was raised in a hamlet in the middle of the countryside, assures me that she saw Apaches more or less annually, and she’s never impaled herself on a spike or fallen into a pit of slurry (ooh, spoilers) so I suppose we might thus view this prequel to Final Destination as something of a success.

But I don’t want my perspective to be completely skewed. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Some films ended happily, with a near miss instead of a fatality, or a serious-but-not-life-threatening injury that left a timely reminder that things could have been much worse, so let’s hope you’ve learned your lesson. And it was a welcome opportunity for celebrities-of-the-time – including Alvin Stardust, Les Gray (from Mud) and the late, not-so-lamented Jimmy Saville to wax lyrical about the importance of crossing the road properly. Appearing in a PIF was the 1970s equivalent to appearing on the CBeebies bedtime hour reading a story – a fleeting but memorable appearance that was destined to pepper YouTube in the decades to come to satisfy the perpetually bored and curious.

While there were plenty of road safety videos that ended badly, for example, there were an awful lot more that didn’t. Here, for instance, is former Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, apparently wearing a similar jacketĀ to the one that Stan wore in The Secret of Monkey Island.

(In the comments page, some bright spark has written that Keegan really ought to have taken the kid to the pelican crossing, because it contains the only black and white stripes over which he has any real control.)

I can sense at least some of my American audience shrugging their shoulders at this, having no real idea who Kevin Keegan is, so here’s Darth Vader – or the man in the suit, at least.

I like to think he was wearing this under the breathing apparatus and mask when he was shooting A New Hope. My money’s also on this being in at least one kinky couple’s roleplay / fetish wardrobe. Either way it looks like he lost a bet.

And finally, this chap ought to be familiar.

Right, so that’s:

Safe place to stop
Pavement
Look
If (traffic is coming, let it pass)
No traffic? Walk straight across
Keep looking and listening for traffic while you cross

All of which is an entirely convoluted mnemonic, and there have been various (rather rude) alternatives offered over the years, such as “Choose a safe place to stand, Observe the traffic, Carefully walk across the road, Keep safe…”. Don’t get me wrong, SPLINK is easy enough to say, but much harder to deconstruct. It’s no wonder there are so many fatalities on the roads.

There is a reason I’m talking about all this, of course, and it’s connected with Pertwee, but that can wait for another day. In the meantime, I appreciate that this has been rather miserable and death-heavy, so to cheer you all up here’s a fun video about dogs.

Oh well.

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