Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Stop, Look, Listen... And Take Heed!

The excellent nostalgia TV channel Talking Pictures TV, about which I blogged previously on the occasion of its 5th birthday, very often as mentioned shows short archive documentary films and amateur cinefilm - usually between 10 and 30 minutes' duration - in association with the likes of the Imperial War Museum and the British Film Institute.  Recently it has started broadcasting some quaint motoring-related shorts from the 1940s and '50s, some linked to the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the original Austin 7 motor car which was first introduced in 1922 (and which I can hardly believe will shortly be celebrating its centenary, having also blogged about it on the occasion of its 90th birthday).  One that particularly caught my fancy and which has [partly, along with Mim's recent review of a TPTV-aired feature 80,000 Suspects over on Crinoline Robot] inspired this post is the captivating and entertaining (in more ways than one) road safety film from 1947 entitled It Happened Today.

While in places it hasn't dated well (especially Patrick Holt's narration, which has suffered somewhat from 70 years of change and the many pastiches from the likes of comedians such as Harry Enfield) this just adds to its overall charm in my book and it remains a fascinating early example of its type.  One particularly interesting area it focuses on is the then still-new concept of the unsignalised pedestrian crossing, complete with Belisha beacons but yet to feature the now-familiar black-and-white stripes that gave rise to its more common alternative name - the zebra crossing.  

A Belisha Beacon crossing at the corner of Whitehall  and Horse Guards Avenue, 
London, December 1938.
source - Flickr / Leonard Bentley

First introduced in 1935, Belishas were the brainchild of - and were named after - Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Minister for Transport from 1934 to 1937 who was a staunch advocate of improved road safety especially after he was nearly run over on Camden High Street shortly after his appointment.  Part of his Road Traffic Act 1934, which also included the creation of the 30mph urban speed limit, the first official driving test and a comprehensive updating of the Highway Code, the beacons were added to existing "uncontrolled crossings" that had until that point only been demarked by reflective metal studs set into the road.  The distinctive flashing orange globes set atop a black-and-white painted pole, along with the new speed limit and driving test, went a long way to lowering the number of fatalities on Britain's roads from 1934's high of nearly 7,500 (along with 231,000 injuries).  It was not until 1949, however, two years after It Happened Today was made, that the matching stripes were first added to the road surface giving rise to the zebra crossing name that they still bear today (and which was allegedly coined by a young James Callaghan - then a junior transport minister - when he viewed an early prototype at the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire).  Now the next big advance looks to be intelligent light-up crossings with warnings built into the kerb to try to catch the attention of the smartphone-addled.   

source - The World of Playing Cards

source - The World of
 Playing Cards
So well-received were the beacons that, in addition to quickly receiving Belisha's name, such was their novelty value they started something of a craze for related ephemera - including an eponymous card game based along the lines of Rummy.  Made by the well-known playing card manufacturer Pepys, the cards feature delightful images of various British landmarks and towns from London to Oban as well as pictures depicting the safe (and not so safe!) use of the road, along with examples of the road signs in use at the time (and which are fully deserving of their own blog post) and different coloured numbers - the idea being to collect sets of either of the latter.  As something of a Pepys collector myself, Belisha (my example's on the left) was one of the first of their games I picked up (from eBay a couple of years ago) and it has proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable and popular diversion (see what I did there?).  The game was updated in 1955 with the addition of an extra level of cards, updated images and new road signs.  Released as Round Britain it nevertheless retains much of the charm of Belisha, although the revised rules and new cards do make it slightly less fun to play (needless to say an example still graces my collection!).

Various road safety films similar to It Happened Today would continue to be made throughout the 1940s and '50s.  Then in 1953 came the character of Tufty Fluffytail, an anthropomorphic red squirrel created by one Elsie Mills as a way of imparting road safety advice to young children in an accessible and understandable way.  This led to the creation of the Tufty Club in 1961, designed to promulgate road and pedestrian safety among the under-5s through simple books and, later, public information films (narrated by the great Bernard Cribbins).  Such was its success that at its peak there were almost 25,000 Tufty Clubs throughout Britain with over 2 million members and the scheme lasted well into the 1980s, outliving several other programmes.


One of those programmes was the "Kerb Drill", which ran concurrently with the likes of the Tufty Club and other road safety policies.  Even Batman got in on the act during one of his rare breaks from fighting crime in Gotham City, as this recently-discovered footage from 1966 proves.


The 1970s saw the introduction of arguably the most well-known and long-lived road safety initiative - the Green Cross Code.  Featuring noted Bristolian Dave Prowse (who would later go on to greater fame as the body of Darth Vader in Star Wars) as the Green Cross Man this series debuted in 1975 and ran for nearly 20 years until the early 1990s (with a brief revival, complete with a then 80 year old Prowse, in 2014) scaring the bejesus out of a generation of dungaree-wearing kids by suddenly appearing out of nowhere, sometimes accompanied by an unnamed robot sidekick, looking very stern and shouty.  While the Green Cross Code Man was eventually retired, the Code itself lives on, although various subsequent attempts to instil road sense in youngsters have, erm, perhaps not been quite so successful.   


So there we have it then - a brief history of road safety from the 1930s to the 1990s (a bit late period-wise for this blog perhaps, but then all things Nineties are considered "vintage" now apparently) inspired by a splendid piece of 1940s film work.  Looking back at these innumerable road safety initiatives and the many dangers still very much inherent on the roads - not helped by modern technology and with 15-19 year olds having among the highest death rates due to traffic accidents - some new safety programmes inspired by the past seem called for.  One could easily see another update of Belisha, with current signs and new pictures, being just the thing to teach the youth of today how to stay safe on the roads.  Hmmn, maybe another lock-down project... 

***It Happened Today is also available to view for free on the BFIplayer*** 

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