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Our Crack Tongue & Groove

charleysays.jpg Bring back Charley!

Charley the cat was the breakout star of 1970s and 80s public information films, a period when death and destruction stalked the nation in the most entertaining of manners.

When, what I can only describe as old people, gather together, talk will invariably turn to television and how much better it was in years gone by. (Young readers: television is that thing in the corner of your living room displaying an inexplicable amount of Eamonn Holmes.)

“Even the adverts were good,” the old people will declare erroneously, usually citing the laughs they would get out of the Toilet Duck. But let’s give them their due, because some of the adverts were good, but not the ones they usually bleat on about. I’m talking about the adverts on the BBC. And if you’re thinking “Huh! The BBC don’t carry adverts!” it’s time that you forgot everything you knew and got with the public information film programme. These adverts were good, and shown on the BBC, because they weren’t trying to sell you something but tell you something, and that something could be anything from how to survive a nuclear attack, to the dangers of placing a rug on a polished wooden floor (“Put a rug on a polished floor and you may as well put down a man trap”). They were, in many cases, 30-second horror films that put the willies up a generation of kids. One of the most traumatic warned of the dangers of swimming in open water and featured a cowled figure (ie Death) hanging around a reservoir on the look out for fresh meat (“I’ll be back, back, back…!”).

My favourite is a one-minute clip warning of rabies coming to Britain and features a woman cowering inside a phone box while a black Labrador sniffs around innocuously outside. A voice over intones portentously: “Can you imagine being frightened of every friendly animal you meet? Imagine rabies. In Britain.” It includes a montage of a man backing away from a dog in a park; a sign proclaiming “Rabies Infected Area. Poisoning & Gassing In Progress”; and a zoom shot of a poster stating dramatically: “Cat Show: Cancelled”. More unnerving than Cannibal Holocaust, it gives the impression that the UK is only a hair’s breadth away from stockpiling food and heading for the hills.

A more friendly pet could be found in the shape of Charley, a cat whose incomprehensible pronouncements on everything from playing with matches, to falling into water, to the dangers of going off with strangers, endeared him to generations (including The Prodigy who sampled him on their 1991 hit Charly).

These films were distributed by the Central Office of Information - which the coalition government closed down in 2011 as part of their austerity drive - and remain little more than curios today. But I note that the number of people who drowned in the UK last year was the highest figure since records began.