There are two ways to prevent the hundreds of firework-related injuries forecast to occur around Bonfire Night. One is to rebrand Halloween as a month-long festival, and swallow the November ritual in a stream of pumpkins. To anyone working in retail, this is probably how it already feels.
The other would be a circulation of professionally-made public information films. Not all of these were as jarring as some of the examples produced during the Cold War, which depicted everything from unsupervised children being blown across their gardens to Richard Briers’ protective biscuit tin. As the free collection on BFI Player shows, there are plenty of information films that still apply to today’s bonfires, and which walk the fine line between ensuring good fun for all, and instilling agoraphobia.
Women’s Munition Work (1917)
The science behind airborne combustion was outlined in this First World War propaganda film, which showed the labour required to make biplanes. Notice the distinct lack of health and safety, or anything resembling a prototype version of the Firework Code: scores of staff are shown merrily welding, operating machines without goggles, and learning mechanical drawing. Their effort is rewarded with a “recreation concert” in the factory rest room, and a game of rough-and-tumble on the lawn. “Hundreds of women are urgently wanted to make aeroplanes. Will you help?” proclaims a title card. It’s worth remembering their aeronautical efforts the next time you light the fuse on your 100-shot missile cake.
Years before The Prodigy were raising a generation of pyromaniacs with ‘Firestarter’, they were sampling the Charley Says series of films commissioned by the Central Office of Information. In Matches, the howling titular cat – voiced by comedian Kenny Everett – is seen observing his friend Tony build a pyramid out of alphabet blocks. But there’s danger nearby: dad’s pipe, broadsheet and pack of matches. When Tony picks them up, Charley hurls himself on the blocks, not unlike an action hero in a runaway grenade scene. “Charley says that if you ever you see a box of matches lying around, tell Mummy, because they can hurt you”, implores Tony. Sage words, particularly given dad’s role on Bonfire Night is either trying to make kindling, or looking for a pub with elbow room.
National Milk Cocoa (1944)
To any parents trying to assure their children that £10 display burgers aren’t compulsory, feel free to quote this ‘food flash’ aired in cinemas during the Second World War. As “Calling young workers!” leaps out of the screen, viewers are informed that “National Milk Cocoa warms you through and through – all through the winter!” Part of an initiative to ensure every employee under 21 received a hot drink in the workplace, it serves as a reminder that you don’t need a vase full of bubble tea to keep warm.
Burns and Scalds (1947)
An early example of the foreboding for which public information films would become famous, Burns and Scalds is a black-and-white shocker on a par with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961). Clutching his teddy, an inquisitive three-year-old tiptoes towards the kitchen stove, which mum has recklessly abandoned! He tilts the boiling saucepan towards him to smell its contents, and we’re slapped with an early special effect: blurring zooms, ringing mechanical sirens, and a POV shot as our young victim is wheeled through hospital corridors. “Children don’t know what’s dangerous. They’re just naturally curious about anything and everything,” barks the narrator. Display coordinators, take note: this is why you shouldn’t desert your petrol-soaked pallets to go off and buy a toffee apple.
Firework: Eyes (1974)
Nowadays, we’ve eliminated all firework eye injuries by only watching them explode through our smartphone cameras. Years ago, that barrier didn’t exist, as shown in this brutal advertisement featuring a nameless, silhouetted boy. We’re introduced to him as “A child whose life has changed in the last year,” and shown snippets of his happier classmates playing football on the green. Our young victim is denied such pleasures because “A firework was thrown, and blew up in his face.” The detachment throughout leaves a greater impact than any prosthetic injury could – if you require a flashier shock, video sharing sites will show that, sadly, self-inflicted firework injuries still occur. Take care tonight.