Spitting Bars Over Tracks – The Return Of The Public Information Film

Railway Tresspass
Trespassing on the railway – Dangerous but inexpensive.

As a child of the 1980s and an apparent member of what some are still calling the ‘Hauntology’ movement, it would hardly come as a surprise if I were to ruminate on the part played by Public Information Films in my cultural awakening. Indeed if you grew up in Britain at any point during the past forty years, there’s a chance that a number of these classic commercial-length dramas would have made a lasting impression on your psyche as well.

For those who are reading these words from afar or those who actually spent their childhoods engaged in wholesome outdoor pursuits in spite of the dangers, a classic PIF scenario would generally involve some young upstart in drainpipe trousers spotting an abandoned football in an electricity substation and advising his young upstart friends of his intentions to retrieve it and return a couple of uneventful minutes hence to instigate a kick-around. The only difficulty is that to get to said substation he has to cross a railway line, a busy intersection, a frozen pond and a sinister looking man brandishing sweets and puppies. Got the idea?

Aimed largely though not exclusively at children and screened during commercial breaks of the 1970s and 80s, they broadcast dire warnings about the manifold dangers of ever leaving the sofa (though in hindsight a few well-placed warnings about the implications of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles on our health might have proved more useful). Suffice to say that several generations of British children grew up just a little bit afraid of everything. For my part, the sight of a pylon still conjures up the sound of a sinisterly warbling modular synthesizer, while my fear of escalators persisted for years into my childhood after watching this as a toddler:

Anyway, the cultural legacy of these short films and their influence on artists such as Broadcast and labels such as Ghost Box (‘Nuclear Substation PIF’ from Mind How You Go by The Advisory Circle is a particularly fine example) has been documented many times before by people better qualified than me to do so. Why, then, am I mentioning all this now? It’s because last week I made a thrilling discovery. Public Information Films are BACK! And thanks to the involvement of some key players from the UK’s grime scene, they’ve been given a streetwise new twist!

Thank heavens that train wasn’t carrying a knife.

Previous generations might have had Alvin Stardust and John Pertwee escorting children to-and-from the Ice Cream van, but our modern yout-dem (if I may be so bold as to use the term) require a little more bang for their buck. Hence we find ourselves confronted with an expensive-looking sound system in a dimly-lit aircraft hangar, some synthesized heartbeats, an edgy voiceover with lots of glottal stops and a smattering of firm handshakes. Not a single kite to be found. This is how we roll in the 21st century.

While I’m very pleased to see the genre return, it’s hard to imagine just what kind of tragedy this film is intended to anticipate. Call me unsympathetic, but if you’re hare-brained enough to stand in the exact centre of eight inter-connecting railway lines then you deserve everything you’re going to get. More to the point, is this track design based on an actual, existing part of our railway infrastructure? If so, I think we should be worrying less about the safety of one law-breaking deliquent and more about the hundreds of innocent lives that will be lost in the event of a monumentally horrendous-though-admittedly spectacular eight-train pile-up catastrophe.

But returning to the matter in hand, both Wretch 32 and George The Poet fail entirely predictably and are killed to bits, though as the narrator thoughtfully reminds us, this was a controlled test, and therefore not quite as fatal as the real thing. To borrow another Hip Hop metaphor, they are slain virtually, like when MCs battle-rap.  ‘I thought this was going to be easy’ offers Wretch, who had clearly been operating thus-far under the misconception that Network Rail was making this film to promote  some kind of extreme form of trainspotting.  [I’m] not bragging or anything’, he confides, ‘but […] they told me I got 97% hearing which is like… the hearing of a brand new species‘.

No need to worry about bragging, Wretch, that’s a perfectly fair statement and only underlines your modesty and humility in defeat. You are, as your appropriately-titled hit single ‘Unorthodox’ reminds us, a new kind of restlessly creative genius fearlessly taking Hip Hop to epic new heights by sampling the catchy hook of an already very popular song by The Stone Roses and layering your pop-rap visions over the top. Using other people’s already very popular tracks to make your own hits is the kind of staggeringly original, game-changing idea that hardly anyone else in rap has EVER DONE, and the term ‘brand new species’ barely even scratches the surface.

Seriously, if a minor celebrity with a major label deal and THE HEARING OF A GOD can’t play safely on the railways, what hope do the rest of us have?  It’s a sobering lesson, though I must say I would have liked to have seen a third round of this test, where both rappers were asked to identify where the train was coming from and then forced to wait twenty bloody minutes for it to show up. Or perhaps we could programme some sort of  ‘First Capital Connect Couldn’t Run A Sodding Tap’ feature and cancel the whole thing at the last moment. I fear that such a scenario would be a much more accurate simulation of the state of our nation’s railways in the twenty-first century.

Minor criticisms such as these aside, this is an interesting new direction for the Public Information Films and a worthy addition to the canon.  And in the spirit of progress I’ve helpfully taken the liberty of coming up with some fresh new takes on classic public information films,  re-designed to appeal to the modern urban youth of today.  Any production companies interesting in discussing these ideas further are advised to send a cash-stuffed envelope to the usual address:

  • Lethal Bizzle neglects to don gloves while handling a sparkler (that’s a firework, not street-slang for jewellery)
  • Chipmunk leaves his Chip-pan unattended while polishing his floor and then puts a rug on it.
  • Example neglects to stand still on an escalator and makes an Example of himself. (very clever, that one)
  • Wiley, attempting to return to his ‘Eski-Boy’ roots, acts irresponsibly on a frozen pond
  • Dappy from N-Dubz attempts to rescue a frisbee from a substation (with surprisingly graphic-yet-cheering results).
  • Tinchy Strider goes kite flying near a pylon, while an elderly Bernard Cribbins looks on from the tree-tops, concerned..

Despite all this talk of new directions, it’s worth noting that incorporating Hip Hop into public safety announcements is not quite as recent a development as one might assume.  Marvel at this classic 1980s PIF in which Grandmaster Flash & The Sugarhill Gang’s grim ode to the violence, poverty and lawlessness of 1980s New York is re-appropriated to soundtrack little Jonny’s close encounter with a Vauxhall Astra.

It’s like a jungle sometimes.

Sadly the movement then took a wrong turn by investing in the briefly hip New Jack Swing sounds of the early 90s and serving up this turgid little stinker, an ode to the education system’s obligation to keep it’s charges fed that even at the time (and as part of the campaign’s intended demographic) I considered one of the most poorly-judged attempts at getting down with the kids ever.  Even Kurtis Blow would turn his nose up at this:

Clearly nobody involved in this nationwide campaign had ever been to Belah Primary, a school whose canteen was so bad that they were forced to bulldoze the entire place. Even incorporating a Kool & The Gang drum break while wearing a baseball cap sideways – usually the ultimate youth password – fails to convince. Did you notice the kid in the Hawaiian shirt who, unlike his table-mates, fails to meet your eye in the freeze-frame at the end? It’s because he knows that he has just implicated himself and all his friends in the DEATH OF HIP HOP.

‘Ghetto pass revoked’ as Blackalicious might have put it.  No wonder it’s taken them over twenty years to have another go.

In closing I thought I’d share this highly amusing escalator safety video I found on youtube. It’s not quite a public information film but it is interesting to watch how our stateside cousins handle similar subject matter and to speculate as to how anxious the video editor was to try out the new vision mixer he got for Christmas.  Groovy soundtrack too.

An illuminating video, but nobody seems to have thought of covering the dangers of mounting an escalator backwards in order to film the person behind you, or indeed allowing out-going scenes to float out of the window, where they could pose a danger to pedestrians.  While watching, I am struck by two thoughts. The first is that if I had only had access to this video as a toddler directly after being so horrified at the crushing of that wellington boot in the UK PIF mentioned earlier, I might have been spared years of nightmares  The second is the realisation that perhaps America’s rap community should make their own railway safety video? Partly because of Hip Hop culture’s long record of trespassing on the lines in order to ‘bomb whole cars’ with their graffiti tags, but mostly because having recently read a rather unpleasant interview with angry narcissist Chris Brown, I reckon putting eight trains on top of him would improve the gaiety of the nation no-end.

Well, that about does it for now. If anybody wants me I’ll be at the shunting yard. It’s a stupid name for a pub but they have a good jukebox…


Author: Robin The Fog

Sound Artist, Radio Producer, DJ, founder and chief strategist of tape-loop proejct Howlround. Devout Catalyst.

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