Clunk-click, don’t drink and drive, don’t fly kites near power lines, and definitely don’t trespass on the railway. Whenever you watch an old public information film made by the Central Office of Information, you know that its message will leave an impression.
In Britain, especially during the 1970s and 80s, if there was a danger to be made aware of, there was probably a public information film to accompany it. They often scared you, and they always drew you in.
In 1975 the Department for Transport and the Central Office of Information were tendering for creative treatments on the theme of motorway safety. At the time, cars were getting faster and driving standards on motorways were leaving much to be desired. Enter director Ferdinand Fairfax and the ‘perfect driver’.
Made on a £28,000 budget, Fairfax’s gothic-tinged road-safety short, Night Call (1977), would become a public information film classic, playing like something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or even Tales of the Unexpected. Focusing on an obsessive quest for perfection, it consists of a journalist talking to a doctor about what makes the perfect driver, while they wait for a body to be cut out of a crashed car.
The hard facts of various aspects of motorway driving procedure are discussed, particularly driving at night or in bad weather. The film also covers lane discipline, separation distances and correct signalling when on motorways, before building to an intriguing twist as we ultimately witness the identity of that ‘near perfect driver’.
Viewers may well see the twist in the tail coming, but there’s plenty of atmosphere, suspense, real 70s style and a dash of humour (intentional and otherwise) in the telling – as well as a trick or two borrowed from Steven Spielberg’s tense early thriller Duel (1971). There are some clues along the way: the mystery driver’s shoes at the motorway services are a good place to start. And that registration plate too. Incidentally, the latter is still on the DVLA’s register: contrary to the plot of the film, the car lasted on the road until 1994.
Night Call is riddled with top British talent. David De Keyser (Diamonds Are Forever, Waking the Dead), Barrie Ingham (Dr Who, The Great Mouse Detective) and Pamela Salem (Never Say Never Again, The First Great Train Robbery) all had long-standing TV careers complementing their film careers.
It’s the music that keeps this one rolling though – a haunting cosmic space-rock opening from Leo Afzelius and incidental music from the now legendary Douglas Wood, who wrote ‘Drag Racer’, once the long-running theme tune for the BBC snooker.
Fairfax had worked on several features as an assistant director to the likes of Don Chaffey, J. Lee Thompson and cult trash auteur Pete Walker. As a director in his own right, he worked for the National Coal Board and Shell documentary film units before moving into filmed television drama in the late 1970s. Two years before Night Call, at the request of the COI, he turned in a similarly idiosyncratic road safety film for the Department of the Environment, The Motorway File (1975), presented by Edgar Lustgarten.
In this anniversary year for the COI, it’s worth sampling Night Call – a hidden gem that’s typical of the pleasures of the their best public information films. Not just a source of useful driving tips, it oozes with suspense and mystery.