Public Information Films

In the days before mobile phones, the Internet, and even 24-hour TV channels, even very young kids used to spend a lot of time outside, unsupervised, playing in places it wasn’t advisable to play. The adults decided the best way to stop kids from playing in dangerous places was to employ scare tactics – thus the age of the Public Information Film was born.

Anyone who was a kid in Britain in the 1970s will remember these. As far as I am aware they were a uniquely British phenomena. They were all pretty scary, but the one that traumatised me most was a film called ‘The Finishing Line‘, that was all about the dangers of playing on railway lines.

The film in its entirety doesn’t seem to be available on YouTube. The full film is 20 minutes long and starts with a young boy fantasising about what might happen if his school sports day featured fun activities like running across a railway line, throwing rocks at moving trains and so on. It was commissioned by British Rail, since apparently vandalising trains and kids playing on railway lines and being hit by trains was a big problem in the 1970s. The video below is the first five minutes or so. Beyond the retro images of 1970s fashions, you might notice the nurses lining up a bunch of stretchers. In the first ‘game’ – involving running across the tracks into the path of a moving train – there is one casualty, which the nurses bundle into one of stretchers. The film goes on with other ‘games’, each one producing more casualties, and at the end of the film, pretty much all the kids are dead.

It was released in 1977 – at which point I was seven years old – and it was broadcast several times on TV, and taken into schools.

I remember a retired train driver coming to our junior school (in those days junior school was for kids age 7-11, and was between primary and secondary school), and showing us slides of damage to trains, and the injuries he suffered to his face when someone threw a rock at his train and the glass from the shattered window got into his eyes. He also told us about the kids he ran when he was driving his train, and how many pieces they got cut into. He told us he wasn’t going to show us those slides – that was for the older children.

As I recollect I didn’t see ‘The Finishing Line’ at school on that day. My memory is that I watched it on TV, where it was shown to an audience of kids and there was a televised discussion afterwards. Right after the film one young boy felt so sick he had to be taken out of the room.

The scene that really traumatised me – and this is the one I can’t find anywhere on the Internet – was the final ‘game’, where all the school kids have a race through a train tunnel, and they get hit by a train. All the dead and bloodied kids are lined up on the tracks in the final scene. There’s a long range shot of that on the film poster on the IMDb entry.

There’s no doubt that the ‘scare them silly’ tactic employed in the 1970s to deter kids from hanging around places where they might get hurt was effective. After nearly 30 years of commuting by train to work, I still worry about standing too close to the edge of the platform when waiting for my train. But every once in a while I also lie awake at night thinking about this film and remembering the trauma of watching it. Given that it’s been over 40 years since I saw it, the tactic was clearly a bit heavy-handed. Apparently I’m not the only one to think so – the film was so controversial, and caused so many kids distress, it was banned in 1979 and replaced by a less gruesome film called ‘Robbie’.

Hopefully we have slightly more subtle ways of discouraging kids from playing on the railway lines these days, and subsequent generations don’t carry around the psychological trauma we Generation X-ers do from growing up with Public Information Films.

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