Who are you to tell me what to do? Our reaction to even the sagest advice can vary wildly depending on who is giving it. This was one of the biggest problems facing the planners and producers of the Central Office of Information, the government’s communication agency, from its foundation in 1946 until its closure in 2012. Whether addressing adults or children, they had to juggle with the rebellious streak that nestles within many of us when presented with knowing voices of authority.
In researching my book The Story of British Animation (published September 2021), it became clear that the COI found animation to be one of the most effective tools in getting a whole range of audiences to listen to the message rather than shooting the messenger.
Take Charley, the cartoon representative of a postwar British public looking to rebuild their lives and society after years of sacrifice. New Town (1948) is the first of seven films made by Britain’s leading animation studio Halas & Batchelor for the COI, which were intended to communicate many of the landmark policies of Clement Atlee’s Labour government. It cleverly presents the ambitions of the New Towns Act of 1946 without ever explicitly mentioning it, framing life-changing policy developments as if they arose through spontaneous acts of popular will.
In Robinson Charley (1948) our hero interrupts the ‘voice of God’ narrator before his lecture on Britain’s economic history can really begin. Instead, the film refocuses on a more humanised approach in which Charley acts as a stand-in for “our island from 1690 to 1960” as a whole. If the audience accepts the character, then it is harder to resist the logic of the film – along with the projection of a white, patriarchal, heteronormative society, which is embedded in it.
An alternative approach was to use obviously inept and problematic characters, like Joe and Petunia, to demonstrate to audiences the wrong way to behave. This popular sequence of films made between 1968 and 1972 by Nick Spargo – creator of the offbeat children’s series Willo the Wisp (1981) – features a comically grotesque couple who make a mockery of the countryside code, wave at a drowning sailor and ultimately get bumped off in a car accident after failing to spot their worn tyres.
A similar approach was used in Disgusted Binchester (1973) – a film about the Race Relations Act that attempts to enlighten a red-nosed chauvinist who is presented as a buffoon that few would wish to associate themselves with. However, the most remarkable fact about the film is that it chooses to tackle the subject without featuring any actual ethnic diversity. It’s to contrast the film with the slightly later The Referee (1976) on the same subject, which is framed much more for Britain’s South Asian community and mixes animation with an extended metaphor about wrestling.
It was with younger audiences that these animated avatars of appropriate behaviour were often most successful, particularly those that defied the popular maxim not to work with children or animals. And it was another cartoon Charley, this time a cat, who has become almost synonymous with the COI’s output as a whole. The ‘Charley Says’ series is a cult classic of 70s Britain that’s demonstrated a remarkable staying power, despite the fact that they were produced on a shoestring budget. Their creator, Richard Taylor, had a remarkable capacity for experiment and improvisation that led to him being one of the leading producers of animated public information shorts.
Created with nothing more than cut-out cardboard and felt tip pens, Charley is at times a surrogate, falling victim to the accidents that might otherwise affect the child. But he is also something of a guardian angel, mewling garbled advice (voiced by Kenny Everett) that’s translated for us by the boy, delivering messages that are altogether wise without a trace of authoritarianism.
As the COI adapted from the ‘voice of God’ to the ‘voice of cat’, its considered use of animation helped guide more than one generation to a safer upbringing.
The nation’s wagging finger: celebrating 75 years of the COI’s public information films
Curators from the BFI, The National Archives and Imperial War Museums introduce an ambitious new project marking the 75th anniversary of the Central Office of Information, the government agency behind those terrifying public information films... and much more besides.
By Sarah Castagnetti