Anne Diamond on how public information films need to make a comeback

PUBLISHED: 10:38 24 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:40 24 January 2014

Tufty the squirrel helped a generation with road safety - and he's still about today, see

Tufty the squirrel helped a generation with road safety - and he's still about today, see


We might smile at memories of the Tufty Club, but right now public information films could help us limit a coming epidemic as the ‘oldies’ generation swells

Do you remember Charley the cat, Tufty the squirrel, ‘Clunk Click Every Trip’, or even the bizarre parking habits of a certain Reginald Molehusband? I bet they’re ingrained into your very psyche, and I wonder how much they have influenced all of our lives. Just those few examples are possibly the most famous Public Information Films that we used to see so regularly on our TV screens. We could mouth every word.

You just don’t see them anymore – but I reckon we badly need a comeback. A return of those slightly nanny-ish style words of wisdom and advice deliberately designed to shape a generation’s behaviour. They were usually made by the COI (Central Office of Information) for the government (though not always – some were made by the NSPCC, British Transport, RoSPA, or even British Gas) and were offered free to the TV companies to broadcast whenever they had 30 seconds spare. It used to happen a lot. Now commercial companies, nor even the BBC. ever have free time – and so a valuable public service has been lost to us all. Yet never has there been a time when we need it more – save possibly during the growing AIDs scourge of the 80s. (When, of course, we all remember the John Hurt narrated ‘Don’t Die Of Ignorance’ made in 1987).

In the past few months we have heard that the rather alarming TV advert telling us to beware the persistent cough, lest it be the first sign of lung cancer. It has been incredibly successful, resulting in a doubling of early diagnoses.

It doesn’t surprise me. If you have a simple, clear health message, then a TV advert does the trick. I knew it back in 1991, when I was campaigning to reduce the number of cot deaths. We had a simple message to give – sleep your baby on his or her back – and I knew we should do it through a TV ad. No, said the then health minister Virginia Bottomley, young mothers do not watch television. (A really unbelievable thing for me to hear!) She wanted to disseminate the information through health channels, and health officials. But I knew the best way to do it was through the TV – so I kept up the pressure and in the end, she relented. The Back To Sleep ad was the most powerful 30 seconds I have even been involved in. And later, when the official report came out, we found that 87% of the mothers who took in the life-saving message, got it from the TV ad. And it is still the single most successful health campaign in the UK – EVER! It’s reckoned to have saved over 15,000 lives.

So now we have yet another massive health crisis – the near epidemic of dementia and Alzheimers. What can be done? Well, according to many experts, who lobbied David Cameron ahead of the special G8 ‘dementia summit’, we should all be persuading the entire UK to take up a Mediterranean diet. Rather than what they call ‘dubious’ drugs, they say this would be far more effective in the fight against dementia.

I say it’s time for another PIF, telling people that they should change their diet right now to help save themselves. And explaining exactly what it is to eat a Mediterranean diet – because it’s not about pasta and pizza as the media seems to believe – it’s about olive oil, salads, veggies and less dairy and red meat – and so much more only an old-fashioned public service ad could explain – perhaps hosted by Jamie, or Delia, or other well-known faces we love and trust?

I know there are many who would knock such a move as ‘nanny state’ and defend to the utmost their right to make the wrong decisions, and drink or eat themselves into an early grave, just for the right to do so. But I’m not the first to suggest that we need a good nannying right now or we’ll end up with a society, top heavy with old people (of which I will be one) who are less healthy than they should be, an almost impossible drain on the NHS and, God forbid, 40 per cent of us suffering from dementia. Alzheimer’s disease International says the number of people living with dementia worldwide is 44 million, and that global numbers are expected to hit 76 million in 2030. Keep the scientists working on the drugs; keep the pressure up on the politicians to make this issue a priority.

But if a large part of the answer may be diet, then let’s not die of ignorance. Let’s bring back the public service ads now, before it’s too late!

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