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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006, 16:08 GMT
Not waving but drowning
The Magazine's Public Information Film festival

Each weekday in February, the Magazine will be featuring a classic public information film from the past 60 years, concluding with a vote on your favourite of all the films.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Central Office of Information, the government department responsible for the memorable films which warned the public of the dangers around them, the Magazine is featuring a different film from the archives each week day in February.

Today's features Joe and Petunia, a cartoon couple who were in a number of films starting in the late 1960s, covering subjects such as the countryside code, the dangers of worn tyres, and saving water. This film, about the Coastguard, was probably the best known.

Scene: Sailor in small boat struggling against high waves and wind. Meanwhile a couple sit picnicking on a - strangely windless - clifftop, looking out to sea.

PETUNIA (eating ice cream): Oh it's ever so nice and peaceful up here, Joe. Nice view, too.

JOE: Aye, very nice Petunia. And look at that nice little boat. He's having a lot of fun out there in his nice little dinjy. That's what they call them, you know, sailing dinjies.

PETUNIA: Aren't they nice people at our hotel, Joe?

(Joe, looking through binoculars, sees sailor hanging on to his boom for dear life.)

JOE: Hey hey! Hello! Now he's splicing his main brace.

PETUNIA (focusing on ice cream): Though I don't think the man on table six is very nice.

JOE (still looking at sailor): Ey, do you think he's in trouble, Petunia?

PETUNIA: Ooh no, Joe, he's just enjoying himself on holiday.

(Sailor is thrown into sea, then waves frantically for help.)

JOE: Oh, he's decided to have a swim. Now he's going to climb back again. I expect that water's a bit cold, don't you? Oh, oh, he's changed his mind. Now he's waving to us. Coooeeee! I can't say I recognise him, though.

Ask for the coastguard

PETUNIA: Well he must know us. Maybe it's the gent on table number six?

JOE: No it's not him, he's much...Oh now he's shouting. LOVELY DAY, IS'NT IT?


JOE: I can't hear a word he's saying, you know.

(Sailor's words appear in a speech bubble: in a postmodern joke, somehow Joe is able to read the speech bubble.)

JOE, reading: Dial 999... and... ask... for... the... coast...guard... Well I never!

(Joe runs to phone box and dials 999.)

VOICEOVER: If you see a boat you think may be in distress, dial 999 and ask for the coastguard.

One critic has said Joe and Petunia embody an advertising approach of "the public are idiots", but it's not as simple as that.

What can we tell about Joe and Petunia? At first glance they might seem like lazy stereotypes of "simple northerners" - so much so they would probably not be acceptable images nowadays.

But on closer inspection they are more subtle characters.

  • Joe is an uncomplicated chap, with simple tastes, especially compared to his more sophisticated wife. He wears a handkerchief on head, and yet also sports a smart holiday blazer. He was voiced by Peter Hawkins, a celebrated voice who appeared as a Dalek, a Cyberman, Captain Pugwash and a Flowerpot man. The character, however, is clearly coming from the same place as Brian Murphy's George, from the later George and Mildred. Joe's a know-it-all, and yet is lacking in common sense. In another film he is shown smashing bottles in the countryside for kicks, and leaving gates open.

  • Petunia is a social climber with extravagant tastes - check out those specs. She's also a northerner but is affecting a posh accent. She is revelling in staying in a hotel and keeping tabs on the other guests.

They exemplify the state of mind which is a common factor of characters in most public information films - they are utterly unaware of the upturned garden rake waiting for them just round the corner, and yet it is obvious to any onlooker.

Flattering the audience is a staple technique - the watcher will know it's stupid to fall asleep with a cigarette, or to use badly wired power tools. The audience here gets a superior glow from knowing that smart alec Joe is mis-pronouncing "dinghy".

In that way the films are less a full frontal attack on the audience's stupidity, even though at some level the film-makers are hoping for a chime of recognition that "yes, that could be me, I've done that".

So is the message of coastguard that there are really people who would not recognise a boat in distress? Not really. The reason for the film was to raise awareness of Coastguard, and in particular that they could be reached by dialling the familiar 999.

At a running time of one minute 30 seconds, this was, one might say, a long winded albeit effective way of getting a relatively simple message across. The vivid feeling of how scary it would be to have one's cries for help misinterpreted as a greeting is probably what made this film stick in the imagination.

Stop Look Listen is compiled by Giles Wilson.

Add your comments using the form below

BRILLIANT. I remember this film from growing up in the 70s. Indeed, it was so influential that my friend and I are still known to use, "Cooeee, luvly day for a swim i'ntit!" Well, we don't get out much. Thanks for a great bit of nostalgia.
Craig Webster, Fife, Scotland

I remember the Joe and Petunia film very well, even though I must have been 5 or 6. Public information films were surely aimed at kids as much as adults - I don't suppose I had even heard of the coastguard when I saw this film. Snyway, what's wrong with getting across an important message from time to time? 1.5 minutes is nothing compared to series after series of Dick and Dom type rubbish.
Kevin, Dartford, UK

Reading this after seeing it years ago, it's really well written. The writer should've been given a sitcom.
Simon Davis, Exminster

Growing up by the sea, I found this film stuck in my head for quite a while. I was always looking for boats in distress, now I knew what to do. I also vividly remember Petunia's huge tongue coming out to lick the ice cream - that always made me laugh.
Liz Brown, Kingsbridge, UK

What a stroll down memory lane - this little film brought back a whole host of memories of that time in my life. I remember loving these little films - we learned the whole script of by heart and used to join in with them. I'm sure some message must have got across to us too. Happy days!
Maggie, Manchester

So fantastic to see this again! Its brought back so many memories - My sister and I can still do our "petunia" impressions - priceless! Thanks very much!
Rachel, Bristol

Superb stuff! takes me right back to Saturday morning telly as a Kid in the early seventies.Joe and Petunia remind me of our"posh" nieghbours and her overuse of "doilies" not kitchen towel!.Talking of public information films does anyone remember the one with the kids by the water and the hooded figure -"sensible children,I have no power over them",gave me the willies as a kid.
Ian Bainbridge, London.UK.

These must have had their impact. I'm in my fifties and work in the Marine Industry and to this day we still say "that's what you call them, you know - sailing dinjies" complete with sad efforts at Joe's accent. How sad.
David Gallacher, Lowestoft

I can't believe that this was introduced in 68'?? I am sure that it is still running occasionally late at night isn't it? Or something very similar anyway?
John Hutchings, Salisbury, UK

Simple but effective - I remember them well, they were a key part of my childhood. Who can forget the farmer, jumping up and down and turning a lovely shade of puce! But thank you for putting out of my misery on one thing - I could remember Petunia's name but not Joe's!
Amber, Haywards Heath

Fantastic, it has been years since I have seen that. I hope you have Charlie the Cat lurking in the wings.
Michael, East Boldon, Tyne & Wear.

Doesn't Petunia sound like Cilla Battersby-Brown from Corrie!
MQ, Glasgow, Scotland

Oh how I remember Joe and Petunia! I was very young when these public information films were on tv regularly, but they became so well embedded in my mind that I still refer to sailing dinghies as "dinjies". My partner, who is a few years younger than me, and thus missed the films completely, has no idea what I'm on about. I remember another short about general personal safety, presented in the style of a car review by the chap who played Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served, and also the one about not putting a rug directly onto a polished floor - "Polish the floor. Put down a rug. You might as well set a MAN TRAP!"
Russ, Weston-super-Mare

Why oh Why won't they do new Info films in the same vain. I'm sure they'll get the message across much better than the current batch of no hopers.
Noel Harris, Reading UK

I remember these films very well.Particulary the one with the couple sitting on a beach. I think that they were aimed at children more than adults. Good to see them again.
Darren Coleman, Dartford, UK

This film had a lot of influence on me - I still call them 'dinjies' I do remember what to do if I see a dinjy in trouble though so the film did have a long lasting effect.
Helen, Edinburgh

I loved these films and think they were valuable in raising awareness of the subject. I think there should make more of these made. Anyone else remember 'Only a fool breaks the 2 second rule' to deter tailgating and 'Sir Isaac Newton told us why and apple falls down from the sky................' about wearing hard hats? Brilliant.
Janet Beetham, High Wycombe

Fantastic. I've never seen Joe and Petunia but this made me laugh out loud. Great animation too, you feel really worried for the sailor. And the performances from the voice-over actors are lovely, and the script so much funnier and better-observed than those of today's 'in your face' cartoon programmes. And this is just a public information film!
Christopher Dickins, Brighton

Whenever my colleagues take the rip out of my pommie accent (which happens with alarming freuqency) I give them a "Look Petunia, he's waving", in my (natural) thickest Northern English accent! A treasure from my childhood, its great to see this film being recognised!
Mand, Wellington, New Zealand

Gosh, this takes me back to when I was young and living on Merseyside and I remembered Petunia's name immediately - amazing how it stuck in my awful memory all these years. Keep these films coming.
Andrew, Armidale, NSW, Australia

I used to love these as a child -- I remember the Countryside Code one best (and have known the Countryside Code ever since). The fact that such ads stick in the memory is surely a good reason for bringing public service ads back
Ann, Coventry, UK

I remember these info-films from the 70's - and still refer to them - Petunia obviously stuck in my head as I jokingly called my wife Petunia in the Northern accent within the last month and I say 'dinjy' in jest when sighting a small craft on the water. The characterisations I hated as they are the stupid northerners that I knew was not true as southerners were just as apt to be mindless but the couldn't care-less attitude of the country-side film (gates open, breaking bottles and leaving glass around) was completely against my strict up bringing. Alyn, Australia (formerly of Yarm, UK)
Alyn Kirby, Hobart, Tasmania

Pure genius.
David Hingley, Ilford

Did it raise awareness of HM Coastguard? People still call the Ambulance/Fire/Police for coast/cliff/mud rescues around the coast. This wastes valuable minutes. The Coastguard are the ones who co-ordinate the other services if needed, including the RNLI lifeboats. I remember a Coastguard coming to our school to give a talk and it always stuck with me. Enjoyed the film, and enjoyed seeing it again.
Dave Ball, Barry Wales

It's funny how this now has a charm all of it's own. I'd completely forgotten about this film. I can only remember the Learn To Swim,Charlie The Cat and Tufty ones. I actually think that we could do with more of this type of thing now, especially with issues that children need to deal with and perhaps adults could do with a few hometruths too.
Juliette, chester,uk

The "strangely windless" location of Joe and Petunia is an accurate depiction of the difference in wind levels only a few hundred metres off shore, so beware when children go out on air beds! Oh, and your transcript missed out the iconic "COO-EEE!" before "Lovely Day, i'nt it!"
Tim, Falkirk

I read a fair few blogs by people in the ambulance service. From what they say, it seems obvious that we could do with public information films now on what constitutes an emergency (ie. when NOT to phone for an ambulance) and what to expect if you do have to call an ambulance.
Snoop, Bristol, UK

I've found that the Vast majority of Information Films were geared towards younger audiences, and so the only people who were likely to know what to do in the case of an emergency were school age children. The Joe and Petunia film is a good example of this! Now we try not to scare children, but the adults (Who saw these films when they were young) get the warning instead.
Heather Bingham, Wolverhampton

I am only 20 years old, so am looking forward to seeing more of these amusing films that I am too young to have seen or to remember. However, would it be possible to include the date they were released? This would make it much more fascinating, to see how these issues and stereotypes changed (or not!) over the years.
JG, London

A classic public information short! My favourite remains the one promoting the use of safety wear at work, accompanied by a doggerel poem which began "Sir Isaac Newton told us why / an apple falls down from the sky; / and from this fact it's very plain / all other object do the same...".
Paul Vincent, Walsall UK

I remember this film from growing up in the 70s. Indeed, it was so influential that my friend and I are still known to use,'Cooeee, luvly day for a swim i'ntit!'. Well, we don't get out much!Thanks for a great bit of nostalgia.
Craig Webster, Fife, Scotland

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