Among the casualties of the “bonfire of the quangos” ignited in 2010 by the incoming Conservative government was the Central Office of Information (COI), the body that for more than 60 years had overseen government advertising and public service messages – in blunt terms, propaganda. There were, I’m sure, good financial and bureaucratic arguments for stripping away an organisational layer between government departments and the advertising agencies they employed. But the abolition of the COI also reflected a new approach to the question of how a democratic government can get its citizens to do what it wants.

This feature also appears in our bumper Summer 2020 issue.

The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films is out now on Blu-ray from the BFI. A collection of public information films, including a selection from the Central Office of Information, is available to view on BFI Player.

When the COI was founded, in the aftermath of World War II, the underlying assumption was that citizens needed to be instructed and guided by government. Under David Cameron, a traditional Conservative belief that governments shouldn’t preach to the electorate was married to the exciting new idea that governments don’t need to tell the public what to do, because the public can be coaxed into doing the right thing without even being aware of it – an idea given concrete form in the Behavioural Insights Team, set up in 2010 and more often referred to as the Nudge Unit. Since then, referendum and election campaigns have solidified the idea that the blunderbuss approach of chucking messages at the whole population can be replaced by precision digital targeting aimed at specific demographics.

How good either of these ideas are is unproven. Meanwhile, as I write, highly uncivilised viruses are flying around outside my door, trying to kill me, or that’s how it feels. And watching the government trying to get its messages across – a daily succession of ministers looking uncomfortable behind lecterns with large goods vehicle markings, Professor Chris Whitty looking even less comfortable on TV adverts, the personal letter from Boris Johnson fluttering through the letterbox – I begin to wonder whether something, some institutional wisdom about the best ways to address the nation collectively, and how to hammer home a message without becoming hectoring or dull, has been lost.

The thought is prompted by a new Blu-ray set released by the BFI, The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films, which demonstrates vividly the range of form, tone and feeling that government publicity has employed – cartoons, short dramas, documentaries, adverts; patriotism, boosterism, marketing, encouragement, cajoling, nagging, finger-wagging, comedy, suspense, outright terror…

Two points need making at the start. The first is that film and television advertisements were only ever a small part of the COI’s armoury: posters, newspaper and magazine ads and leaflets were often more important (there’s plenty of that material in David Welch’s book Protecting the People: The Central Office of Information and the Reshaping of Post-War Britain, 1946-2011, published last year – a useful complement to the BFI set).

The second is that propaganda for the home market was far from the largest part of the COI’s remit; rather more of its budget was spent on selling Britain overseas – hence films such as Riding on Air (1959), peddling cycling as an activity in general and British bicycle manufacturers in particular; Opus (1967), a survey of the experimental and futuristic in British art and creativity which apparently didn’t sit well with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office civil servants who commissioned it; and Peter Greenaway’s flirtation with the fashion industry Insight: Zandra Rhodes (1981).

The Central Office of Information began life in 1946 as a replacement for the wartime Ministry of Information. The downgrading from ministry to government agency, making it part of a neutral civil service, was in part a way of allaying fears about propaganda: it was only the year before that Winston Churchill, during the election campaign, had claimed that a Labour government would have to “fall back on some kind of Gestapo” to implement its policies, and a nervousness persisted about anything that might look a bit too totalitarian. (A side-effect of the downgrading was that the COI, with no minister to defend it, faced a constant struggle to maintain its budgets – under Conservative governments in the 50s, these were slashed.)

Looking at films from the immediate post-war years, though, you notice how close their tone is to wartime output. In a country still on rations and struggling with a mountainous national debt, the people are still being urged to pull together, and patriotism is appealed to as much as self-interest.

One function was to introduce the public to the joys of the post-war settlement, the welfare state, new towns, the Butler Education Act. The London- and Stroud-based animation studio Halas and Batchelor – which went on to make the classic animated Animal Farm (1954) – contributed a series of mildly surreal cartoons featuring the bicycle-riding everyman Charley: Charley’s March of Time (1948), included in the BFI set, makes the case for national insurance by whisking him through history to see how unemployment, sickness and old age have made life miserable through the ages; in Charley Junior’s Schooldays (1949), his unborn son, in some kind of celestial waiting-room, is soothed with visions of the wonderful, well-funded modern education awaiting him. The bouncy animation and cheery background music contrast with an underlying nervousness Charley’s scepticism is assumed.

The nervousness is more overt in Robinson Charley (1948), a potted economic history of the UK which climaxes with an apocalyptic vision of future collapse if higher productivity and more food self-sufficiency don’t sort out the balance of trade.

Watching the COI’s output over the years, it does feel at times as though its core mission was to induce and maintain an underlying sense of unease. In fairness, it was often in the business of alerting the public to opportunities, from benefits to jobs in the armed forces. In the 1980s, the COI played its part in dismantling the postwar settlement through campaigns tempting the public to buy shares in privatised public utilities such as British Telecom and British Gas (this last campaign remembered for the self-consciously plebeian, so-uncatchy-it’s-catchy slogan “Tell Sid”).

But the things that really stick in the mind are the films designed to scare, the public safety campaigns. Some set out to scare through reason and explanation: Smoking and You (1963) was one of the first out-and-out anti-smoking films; it softens the viewer up with shots of laboratories, of artificial smoking machines, chemicals in test-tubes and beakers full of tar, before switching to pictures of gasping elderly men and diseased lung tissue to show where you might end up.

Others wrap the message in humour – the early 70s cartoons featuring Charley the yowling cat (voiced by the comedian Kenny Everett), who told children not to play with matches, are examples.

Still others just punch straight for the gut: Lonely Water (1973) is a two-minute horror film with Donald Pleasence providing the voice of a grim reaper figure who hangs around reservoirs waiting for careless children; in Searching (1974), directed by the documentary maker John Krish, the camera prowls through a burnt-out home to the sound of a child’s disembodied screams.

The number of children scarred by school screenings of Never Go with Strangers (1971) must run into the hundreds of thousands – it’s a surprise, seeing it again decades later, to find that the commentary repeatedly emphasises that most people are good and kind; the overwhelming impression it leaves is of pervasive evil. Apaches (1977) reached a more select audience – it was shown only in rural areas, where its fable about the dangers of playing on farms had an immediate application; but its brilliantly observed dramatisation of a gang of children at play, succumbing one by one to machinery, slurry pit, poison and so forth, by all accounts left that audience thoroughly traumatised.

The fact that Apaches was directed by John Mackenzie, who went on to make The Long Good Friday (1979), underlines a significant aspect of the COI’s activities, as a patron of the arts. Peter Greenaway said that the COI provided “a little nest for me”, and it cushioned the careers of Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz as well. The BFI collection includes Design for Today (1965), a rather wonderful 20-minute kaleidoscope of life in modern, swinging and very tastefully furnished London, in which every object – bathroom taps, radio, cars, bicycles – is an example of fine British design: the director was Hugh Hudson, who went on to make Chariots of Fire (1981).

Among the most interesting of these protégés was Richard Massingham (1898-1953), who as director or producer stamped every film with his woeful sense of absurdity. Though he never ventured much outside the sphere of public information films (and when he did, the results were disappointing), his reputation was large: at his death, the French cinéaste Henri Langlois wrote that he was the king of suspense, the greatest craftsman and the greatest poet of British cinema, and compared him to Georges Méliès, Jean Vigo, Luis Buñuel, Mack Sennett and Vermeer.

For the COI, Massingham oversaw such miniature masterpieces as What a Life (1948), Another Case of Poisoning (1949) and Brief City (1952), an elegy for the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. He was often the star of his films, using without vanity his jowly face as one of his principal expressive tools. The films often use jokes, or simply are jokes, of which Massingham is the butt; the often postdubbed, asynchronous sound adding to an air of unreality.

Another Case of Poisoning exemplifies one strand of the COI’s activities: what David Welch has identified as enforcing codes of behaviour. In Massingham’s film, a middle-aged man who works in a food factory talks his doctor through a working day so they can pin down where he picked up his dodgy belly. At every turn, we see filth – his wife rummaging through a bin full of leftovers and peelings before preparing his breakfast rissole (and a further flashback shows the butcher the day before, dropping his knife on the floor before he cuts the meat, which he wraps in a piece of newspaper the cat has been sitting on)…

A number of early COI campaigns set out to persuade the British public to take very basic sanitary precautions: wash your hands before meals, cover your face when you sneeze, brush your teeth morning and evening; habits that most people now would take for granted once had to be inculcated, and not so very long ago. Watching Another Case of Poisoning, it becomes clear that one outcome of the coronavirus pandemic will be a renaissance for this sort of basic health campaigning, creating new cultural norms – Don’t touch your face! Throw away that tissue! Watch out for grandad! Where’s your mask? Have you been tested lately?

Whoever runs these campaigns will have plenty of models to follow: the Green Cross Code for children’s road safety, fronted by Dave Prowse – the body behind Darth Vader in all the early Star Wars films – as sensible traffic superhero Green Cross Man, his West Country accent overdubbed by something a little more patrician; Joe and Petunia – a runtish man with knotted handkerchief on his head and his snobbish, blowzy wife, animated by Nick Spargo – wreaking havoc on a farmer’s land to remind trippers to observe the Country Code. Or there’s the highly successful seatbelt-wearing campaign, “Clunk, Click, Every Trip”, fronted by – ah, yes, hmm – Jimmy Savile.

Scrambling together coherent messaging when the world is in lockdown presents challenges beyond even what filmmakers faced during the Blitz. The process has to take into account, too, a fragmented media world, when families are likely to spend the evening retreating to different corners of the house and different nooks of social media rather than gathering around the radio – though as it happens, viewing figures suggest mass audience television is enjoying something of a revival: we’re starting to assemble on our sofas again. But I do hope that whoever runs the new campaigns pays some attention to the precedents.

An advertising executive I spoke to, who was involved in the early Covid ads featuring Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, made it clear that the four-word simplicity of World War II posters (“Careless talk costs lives”, “Loose lips sink ships”) was an inspiration for their simple message: stay home, save lives. Since then, though, things have become more ambiguous and uncertain: stay alert, wear a mask except, stay home but also go to work… Sometimes, don’t you miss good old uncomplicated fear?