The first anti-smoking films: how a nation started to quit

When the link was first officially made between smoking and lung cancer in the early 1960s, the government relied on the filmmaking arm of the Central Office of Information to help alert a population of smokers – both adults and children.

27 October 2021

By Ros Cranston, Patrick Russell

Smoking and You (1963)

It’s Stoptober: a good moment, during the 75th anniversary of the setting up of Britain’s Central Office of Information, to look at Britain’s first official anti-smoking health education films – a great double-bill. 

Smoking and You (1963) and The Smoking Machine (1964) were made in an era when smoking had been the norm for decades among adults – and indeed children. This pervasive position was dramatically challenged by the 1962 publication of a landmark Royal College of Physicians report officially designating smoking a major cause of lung cancer.

These two films suggest it’s not grown-up to smoke – often a risky approach as official discouragement runs the risk of increasing allure. Though their aims are the same, the feel and style of the two pieces, made a year apart, are very different.

Those fascinating differences are partly explained by the fact that, though both were intended mainly to be shown in schools, they were aimed at different age groups, requiring contrasting approaches. But they’re also partly explained by the differing sensibilities and skillsets of the people who made them: Derrick Knight (born 1929) and Sarah Erulkar (1923-2015), two members of the talented, underrated generation populating the thriving postwar sponsored-films sector. 

Smoking and You (1963)

Smoking and You, produced and directed by Knight at his production company Derrick Knight & Partners in 1963, is aimed at teenagers and young adults. 

Derrick Knight
BFI National Archive

In his memoir Short Circuits, Knight writes that a Unilever-sponsored hygiene education film by his firm had caught the attention of a COI films officer who then head-hunted him for this project. Knight recalls having been “quite suspicious of the COI’s reputation of being a difficult sponsor” but hoping it might provide regular work for the company. He was also personally committed to the anti-smoking message of this project due to family experiences. Given two weeks to research and script, the producers were reportedly paid £3,024.5s.1d (“I hooted with laughter at the 1d”) for production, ending up with a profit margin of £82.

Within these budget constraints, Knight sought to make a visually arresting, hard-hitting and palpably evidence-based film. Stylistically, the company’s approach to the sponsored film field was frequently inflected by the cutting-edge aesthetics of America’s Direct Cinema documentary movement and French cinéma vérité, and technical developments with lightweight 16mm cameras. Much of Smoking and You uses hidden-camera footage of smokers. Shot from inside a blacked-out minivan using long focus lenses, these sequences appear to have been filmed without their subjects’ consent.

In other sections, Knight adopts a straightforward informational approach, enlivened by peppy low-budget devices – animation, fake commercials and jump-cut visual summaries of statistics. At the heart of the film is the sinister smoking machine and an address to camera by clinical specialist Dr Charles Fletcher, a well-known media face of the medical profession on account, especially, of appearances on the BBC (working initially with Richard Dimbleby). 

The film was press-launched by Enoch Powell, later notorious for his racist intervention into immigration debates, but at the time a less controversial minister of health. The Central Film Library, which usually charged rental fees for the films it distributed for the COI, made this one available for free and it rapidly broke booking records, reaching 100,000 viewers within one year. It was later successfully sold into the US education market.

Four years later Knight co-authored a report, commissioned by the film technicians union ACTT into the state of short films in Britain, which included many critical remarks on the COI: “Within the film industry it has collected… an image of… purposelessness, petty-minded administration and exploitation of the small and frightened film-maker.” A harsh verdict! Knight didn’t work with the COI again after Smoking and You but they had collaborated on one of their most successful films produced to that date. 

The Smoking Machine (1964)

The Smoking Machine (1964)

The Smoking Machine was written and directed with characteristic aplomb by Sarah Erulkar, who was the first person of colour to have a career as a film director in the UK – though she later said that her “main problem” was “being a woman, more than being Indian”. Unlike producer-director Knight, she was working with a 35mm camera and as a freelancer, taking this commission on at the Realist Film Unit (a significant presence in the sector ever since the 1930s when it was part of the Documentary Film Movement; her producer here is 1930s veteran J.B. Holmes). 

Sarah Erulkar
BFI National Archive

There are some intriguing records about the making of The Smoking Machine, held in The National Archives including a ‘particulars’ sheet produced by the COI. This describes the film as “A smoking and health film in detective story style”, aimed primarily (in contrast with Knight’s film) at the 9 to 12 age group.

Five children play the leading roles. Their older teenage friend, aspiring cool dude Jim, is a keen smoker – who, when pressed, is unable to explain his enthusiasm for smoking. The kids set out to discover why people take up the habit, observing local people (as Knight’s camera had) in between chasing after Jim. On their adventures round the streets of Hampstead they discover an extraordinary contraption that smokes cigarettes mechanically, a version of the same machine seen in Smoking and You. The vigorously puffing device vividly demonstrates to the children – and the audience – the unavoidable harm cigarettes do to lungs. Our energetic protagonists finally corner Jim in a lively denouement – after he runs out of puff.

Sarah Erulkar demonstrates her characteristic stylistic flair, far exceeding the straightforward description in the COI paperwork – with a neatly deployed syncopated soundtrack featuring jazz music together with coughing as a backdrop to the vivid caper film.  There is an atmospheric sense of Hampstead location too, a thrilling chase sequence – and the freedom of the children’s roaming, even as darkness falls, is in striking contrast with more recent conventions of parental responsibility.

On The National Archives’ website, Sarah Castagnetti explores the process by which government policy change worked its way through the COI to the commissioning of the two films discussed here.

Sarah Erulkar is one of 10 filmmakers whose work is being digitally restored by the BFI National Archive as part of a forthcoming project on women documentary filmmakers – look out for its launch in March 2022.


Further reading

The nation’s wagging finger: celebrating 75 years of the COI’s public information films

By Sarah Castagnetti, Michelle Kirby and others

The nation’s wagging finger: celebrating 75 years of the COI’s public information films

Animation for the nation: how the COI used cartoons to present the voice of authority

By Jez Stewart

Animation for the nation: how the COI used cartoons to present the voice of authority
BFI Player logo

Stream landmark cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free