RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES looks at a not-so-obvious icon of Brit-horror, the 1970s Public Information Film.
He is one of the most iconic figures in British horror.
He only appeared once, in a film made in 1973, and yet he put a chill up the spine of an entire generation for many years after.
He was not the creation of Hammer or Amicus, and yet his sole appearance was probably repeated on television more times than their collected works put together.
Remarkably, the film he appeared in was a mere minute and a half long. Perhaps more remarkably, his tale of terror was not aimed at an adult audience, but at children, and was never submitted to the BBFC for a certificate.
He entrapped the unwary by appearing, unannounced between children’s programmes, especially in the school holidays.
He is the Spirit Of Dark And Lonely Water.
The figurehead of a campaign to discourage children from swimming in or playing near potentially dangerous waters, he was put on the screen by the Central Office of Information’s film unit, whose job was to produce Public Information Films, educating the nation on everything from correct use of pedestrian crossings to the safe handling of hazardous materials, from farm safety to fire awareness.
The Spirit in question was voiced by Donald Pleasance, a piece of casting which would prove to be a master stroke, perhaps aiding the longevity of the film, which continued to be shown well into the 1980s.
The esteemed actor’s increasing identification with the horror genre, especially after the release of Halloween, only added to the chilling effect.
Looking at this mini-horror masterpiece all these years later, it seems unthinkable that anyone would consider a campaign of this type today. Just imagine the pitch…
Film Director: I have this idea for a safety campaign aimed at children, to try to cut the number of deaths by drowning.
Government Minister: Oh, really? Like a puppet film, or an animation?
Director: Not exactly.
Minister: Oh, you mean we get a celebrity to record a message? Are One Direction still popular with the youngsters?
Director: Er, not quite what I had in mind.
Minister: Oh. What did you have in mind?
Director: Well. We get an actor to dress up like the grim reaper, then show several children coming to a nasty end while he looks on. We’ll get someone to do a scary voiceover. I hear Robert Englund’s going to be in the UK soon, and…
Director: Oh yes, of course, he’s American. We need a Brit, really. How about if we get that Hopkins fellow to do something Hannibal-esque? That ought to scare the little so-and-so’s out of the water. Job done.
Minister: Are you out of your mind?
Director: No, no. Listen, we’ll play it at every opportunity. Put it on after In The Night Garden. They won’t be expecting that.
Minister (reaching for his intercom): Security…
Director (being dragged out by two uniformed officers): Listen to me! We’ll scare them for years! Minister…!
Yes, you get the idea. Like many of its stable mates, Lonely Water is a genuinely chilling and gritty piece of work which would never be considered suitable for screening to children today. Is that a good thing? I’ll leave you to be the judge.
In Lonely Water’s defence, I will say this – Thanks to it scaring the hell out of me, I never went messing about in dark and lonely water, and I’m happily here to tell this tale. Some are not so fortunate – drowning is the third highest cause of death amongst children in the UK.