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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 February 2006, 10:47 GMT
Water horror
The Magazine's Public Information Film festival

Every day in February, the Magazine is featuring a classic public information film from the past 60 years, concluding with a vote to find the nation's favourite.

The Rolf Harris film featured in this series on Wednesday was notable for its straight treatment of the subject; in short "get your kids taught to swim because horrible things might happen if you don't".

Today's film is from completely the other end of the spectrum: it is, in fact, a mini-horror production. If you are of a sensitive disposition, please click away now.

Stop Look Listen is the Magazine's festival of Public Information Films, with the National Archives and the COI
The film, from 1973, is called Lonely Water.

    (The opening scene is a mysterious dark stretch of water. The voiceover, by Donald Pleasence, is ghoulish and threatening.)

    VOICE: I am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool, and this is the kind of place you'd expect to find me.

    (Cut to children playing on tip)

    The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water
    VOICE: But no-one expects to find me here... it seems too ordinary. But that pool is deep. The boy is showing off. The bank is slippery.

    (Boy slips down bank into small deep pool - other children look on, terrified.
    Then cut to scene of duck pond, with a boy hanging on branch over the water, trying to reach something)

    VOICE: The show-offs are easy. But the unwary ones are easier still. This branch is weak, rotten, it'll never take his weight.

    (Branch cracks, ducks quack, the Spirit is seen turning away through the reeds.
    Cut to sign saying "DANGER - No swimming")

    VOICE: Only a fool would ignore this. But there's one born every minute. Under the water there are traps. Old cars, bedsteads, weeds, hidden depths. It's the perfect place for an accident.

    Child in anorak
    A hoodie, 1970s style

    (Boy in pool shouts for help, Spirit appears by water side. But then other children's voices are heard. )

    BOY : Oy look there's someone in the water. Get us that big stick to get him out.

    (Spirit turns round, startled to see pesky kids interfering with his plan)

    VOICE: Sensible children! I have no power over them!

    BOY: Oy mate that's a stupid place to swim. Hey go over there and get that thing to wrap him in.

    (Other child finds Spectre's cape on floor, like a fallen Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

    BOY: You don't half feel cold mate. How long was you in there?

    (GIRL picks up cape and is disgusted, throws it in water)

    VOICE: I'll be back (heavy echo repeats)

The unwary, over-reaching
As you'll know if you watch the video of this film, it's seriously scary. So scary, indeed, that one Magazine reader, Adam from Madrid, has vivid memories of it, more than 30 years after it was made.

"The spirit of Dark Lonely Water would make a great Japanese horror film," he says. "Talk about leaving a lasting impression, I'm nearly 40 and I can still remember how terrified I felt by the image of the dirty monk's habit being tossed into the water and the pre-Arnie 'I'll be back' line."

Another reader, John, London, wrote: "It scared the bejeezus out of me."

Yet another, Ralph Tonge of Nottingham, said: "It actually was scarier than the thing it was warning about... I wonder who directed it? William Friedkin? David Lynch?"

It really is sinister, the point being presumably to scare children witless whenever they are near water. No bad thing, perhaps, but a slightly different approach to Rolf's enthusiastic "if they get that confidence in the water, they love it".

The horror mask metaphorically slips in the line: "Sensible children. I have no power over them." One can almost imagine the director, having to satisfy competing interests of horror and public education, making a belated nod towards the latter.

Other observations modern readers might make include approval of the way the first child wears his anorak by the hood only, to achieve the full 1970s superhero cape effect. It might also occur to them that little piece of authenticity is marred slightly by the children's dialogue - they speak to each other in the way adults imagine children speak.

It's a curiosity that portrayals of children playing outside like this are not anywhere near as common as they once were. Might this be a reflection of how modern children spend their spare time?

Finally, anyone viewing this film might be put off when next they see a Marks and Spencer advert. There's an uncanny similarity between the way the Spirit relishes death and the way the firm's voiceover drools over a pile of "not just profiteroles".

Stop Look Listen is compiled by Giles Wilson

I was born in '71. There was a deep pond with steep banks, that was full of rubbish in the field behind our house. Throughout childhood I feared deep ponds, maybe this was why? As regards scary public information the kids throwing planks of wood onto railway lines was the one that scared me most.
Steve, Johannesburg, South Africa

If Vincent Price had done the voiceover, we would all be in therapy....
Philip Storey, Darlington

Sounds scary enough. Enhanced with the state of the art special effects and shown on prime time tv with the rider "Some of the content has disturbing imagery.....viewer discretion recommended." This could be translated into other languages in a mutilingual Britain, and sent to other countries also. It could be made into a short film and sent to the British Council/Libraries across the world.It could save many lives.
Dr.D.M.Rao, Ahmedabad, India

The stuff of which nightmares are made. Amazing any of us grew up with the courage to venture outside. It seems better to talk than to frighten.
Candace, New Jersey, US

What a truly terrify film this would of been for children to see. Whoever thought of the grim reaper charactor, in my books did not like children or had none of their own.
Angela, Melbourne, Australia

My generation was safe in the water because we had floaty armbands, which were chief for keeping you above the water margin.
Bobby Nightmare, Scarborough

It may have been scary but it worked for me, I remember watching it sometime in the late 70's. Near where I lived as a child there were a lot of very dangerous ponds holding mine waste pumped from down the pit's. It put me right off going anywhere near them ! Perhaps we need a few more of these types of adverts today. But then again how are you going to scare kids brought up on Playing Resident Evil & watching CSI
Tim, Nottingham

i really did have nightmares about this advert for years ! which really made me try harder at swimming lessons but didn't stop me swimming where i shouldn't ! after admitting this morbid fear of a 30 year old advert to my girlfriend only the other week, low and behold she sent me this link ! thank you very much bbc and the public information ads !!! damn your eyes ! another 30 years of evil nightmares !
nick, winchester

This short film stacks enough fear in you, to wear you just never want to swim,"anywhere", ever again. If you do swim, the visual image of the Monk standing close by will always remain, and the creepy voice over will play over and over in your head, "I'll be back!" This film needs to be turned into a feature and be released just in time for next Holloween.
Anne Martin, Los Angeles, California

Being 24 I've never seen 'Lonley Water' before but have to say it was quite chilling. The public info film I remeber best though was the one with the lout drinking out of a glass milk bottle and just dumping it on the wall. Then a young girl and her mum come along and the girl knocks off the bottle with a stick, she trips, falls and gashes her legs on the bottle. I think the motto was not to litter and to put things in the bin where they belong. That advert got me thinking as a kid and I was forever on at my parents to put all glass things away safley. To this day if I see anyone just dumping glass or anything dangerous I have to go and put it in the bin just in case.
sophie, barry, s wales

I remember this film from my childhood. It was scary, but not terrifying. It taught me to respect water, in terms of rivers and ponds, for which I am very grateful. Wish we had more public information films like this today.
Nigel Milligan, Chinnor, Oxfordshire

Lonely Water was before my time. However, a pubic information campaign in the UK that left a lasting impression on me was the Natural Born Smoker one during the 1980s. Annoyingly, none of my friends seem to remember it. It was set in a Bladerunner-esque future and centred around a freakish-looking man - an evolutionary byproduct of generations of heavy smokers. It was quite disturbing!
Ben Greener, London, UK

I was about 16 when this was shown and even at that age thought 'i'm glad I was taught to swim'. Also thinking that it would scarce the sh*te out of young kids. Seems I was right...
Grace Whyte, Glasgow, Scotland.

I remember every last word of this ad, it terrified me so much. I could anticipate the scenes, the bark on the branch, the rusty metal, the cloak. How many times could we have seen it, given that videos weren't yet invented? Truly memorable. I haven't played near water since and I will show it to my children.
R Dunlop, Belfast

I had forgotten about this advert until i saw it then the memories came flooding back, I was only 4 when this came on TV but i can still remember seing it. It is a tremendous safety film, they should scare you away from places you shouldn't be and things you shouldn't do!!
Ibrahim George, Huddersfield

Oh come on! This isn't the slightest bit scary in fact it's very tame. I remember seeing this public information film on the television in 1973 when I was quite young - I knew all the words practically verbatim. Even then I realised how contrived and unrealistic the film was.
Kathy Atkinson, Charlotte, USA

How annoying! I was waiting fro this film to come up in the series so I could solve a mystery that's haunted me for these last 33 yrs: The exact line of dialogue the girl speaks at the end when she finds the cloak. As kids, my brother and I always thought she said "errr.. its AWFID" (sic) The script published shys away from the exact line and leaves me in a prolonged state of agitation. Hopefully NOT for the next 33 yrs!
Graeme Oxby, Doncaster

That was seriously disturbing! No wonder they've stopped showing this, I can imagine it's fairly traumatic to adults? Children, on the other hand, will ang around dark and lonely water, hoping to catch a glimpse of the 'Spirit'...
Michelle, London

When I was about 6 years old at school we were shown a safety video about why not to play in electricity sub stations and near power lines. When we were shown it at the time it was very scary. Watching it certinaly worked for me and afterwards I was always wary of electicity. I hope things like this are still used today as I think they still have a role in public safety.
Rupert Bright, Fordham, Cambridgeshire, UK

I agree with John and Adam. I am 45 now and I am still terrified by the memory of this short film. I couldn't watch the death eaters in Harry Potter because they reminded me of the "spirit" and anything with grim reaper images makes my blood run cold. Very effective though, put me off swimming anywhere other than a public pool for the rest of my life!
Wendy, Sheffield, UK

I was nine years old when I saw this and was completely traumatised- I still am - it has taken me thirty years to shake off the terror of swimming in water I cannot see the bottom of-up to last summer it was swimming pools only for me -until I managed Hampstead Ladies Ponds- just!but the fear still lurks! Seem to remember Tufty was a much gentler way of educating- I still use the Tufty code!!!How sad is that??
anna, london

I think this short film is one of the most frightening things I have ever seen. I'm 42 now and it still gives me goosebumps! It definitely stopped me playing by water. These public information films are real gems.
Peter West, Cannock Staffordshire

When i saw this article i instantly remebered this tv commercial , i am now 44 years old and can remember the voice!, this film should win the competition easy!
julian, leeds

That advert used to give me nightmares for years, years after. When the camera pans up to the figure before he collapses and you see "nothing" in the hood was paticularly sinister. Can't say I ever did anything stupid near any canal, stream, river or pond though.
Hal, London, UK

I remember this advert like it was yesterday. I never went near any kind of water for a long time. Now I live in Canada and we live near a stream which goes through some darkish woods. the first time I went there I remenbered this advert. I told my children all about the water, and the advert, but I don't think I will be showing it to them.
Sarah Humphries, Vancouver Canada expat

You should try looking for a film they showed us in the mid 1980s about staying away from building sites. That scared the living daylights out of me! It had some boys who had sneaked into a building site when no one was looking. The scene i particularly remember involves one of the boys (who was walking along top of a large concrete cylinder - like they use for street drainage) he slipped and fell and if i remember correctly there splatted a mix of what can only be described as large minced chunks of boy in a goo. It was horrid. But I never did play in a building site!!!!
E Palma, London

I have the 'I'll be back-ack-ack' punchline permanently engraved on my memory. I remember very well being terrorized by this one late at night as a child, and it helped instill in me a life-long fear of swimming in any river, and also of strange old blankets left at the side of the road!
Matt, LA, USA

Times gone by. Beautiful! It's the sense of unity- the feeling of everybody in the country watching the few TV channels available at that time.Contrary to popular belief about the Internet 'shrinking' the world,I think we had 'village England' then;it was almost as though we were were all being 'told off by the same mum'. (!)Today's WWW is much further reaching but without the moral 'glue'. Which time frame is better, I ask...have we really moved on..?
Julian Brennan, Kyoto, Japan

This made my neck hairs stand up watching this again (after a mere 30 odd year break). It's Donald Pleasence's voice over that does the trick...
Phil Doherty, Derry, Ireland

I remember the hood and voice very clearly, seeing this on my own at night aged 6. It was so scary that I took up swimming lessons. Despite being in Police lifesaving competitions I still think of it when I go into open water competitions. Who says this direct approach doesn't work it did for me!
Craig Dunderdale, Willingham England

Does anyone remember the safety videos shown at school, along similar lines to the 70's water safety one. I still remember the farm yard and building site ones. They spook me to this day, especially the falling in a hole and being buried and the large earth moving machine crushing a child leaving only a shoe squashed in the mud.
Anthony Brown , Swindon

As a child my friends and I watched all the public information films enthusiastically, memorising the best lines and repeating them to each other at appropriate moments during play. Nowadays I'm a teacher and I still use my favourite, "Sensible children! I have no power over them!" in class when speaking to my bemused pupils.
Murdo Mutch, March, Cambs., England

Can't help feeling that the cricism of the way the children speak in the Lonely Water film is unjustified. It's not too far from the way I have heard children speak, and one should also remember that the film is 33 years old. AMS
Tony Seaton, Warwickshire

These are great - please keep them permanently online in a central location. They bring back SO many memories of a mis-spent youth!
Andy, Edinburgh, UK

Its great, it took my parents back years..
Jonny, Fareham

Excellent but scary viewing, although I don't have children. If I have then I would consider taking them for swimming lessons if the government pump cash for free swimming scheme.
David tait, Edinburgh. Scotland

I remember a 'don't talk to strangers' film from the 70's which gave me nightmares for years. It featured a man offering kids sweets from his car - it had some special effect where his faced morphed from kindly and avuncular into a deeply creepy character.
pp, London, UK

No, the most shocking one was a 'Don't play on the Railways' one in the late '70. Implied images of children being run over in tunnels and kids being carried off having stepped on the live rail.
JG, London, UK

Does anyone else remeber seeing a film about being safe around farms? It features a group of kids being picked off one by one as they did things like drink weedkiller from an unmarked bottle and drown in a pit of slurry - sure made me think twice about going with friends to the farm!!!
Beth , Wellingborough,UK

I just watched this online with my daughter - when it got to the very end, the "I'll be back" line popped into my head and I was able to say it along with the narrator. Weird to think it's been buried in my head all these years.
Robert Shiels, Windsor, England

It was scary - I still remember it from my childhood - and it worked! But presumably today's PC brigade would veto its production as it might scare some little darling!
William Fletcher, Southampton

Thats sure scary, but there is one worse than that. A Childrens Film Foundation short film shown at Saturday Morning Cinema about kids playing in the train tunnels and what happened to them. It should still be shown now and it sure would stop a load of kids playing on the railways now. Sure had an effect on me, so much so, I'm now a British Transport Police officer and have to deal with kids who dont know better! And we have to pick up the end result of pranks that go wrong!
Amanda , Beckenham Kent

Thats sure scary, but there is one worse than that. A Childrens Film Foundation short film shown at Saturday Morning Cinema about kids playing in the train tunnels and what happened to them. It should still be shown now and it sure would stop a load of kids playing on the railways now. Sure had an effect on me, so much so, I'm now a British Transport Police officer and have to deal with kids who dont know better! And we have to pick up the end result of pranks that go wrong!
Amanda , Beckenham Kent

Thats sure scary, but there is one worse than that. A Childrens Film Foundation short film shown at Saturday Morning Cinema about kids playing in the train tunnels and what happened to them. It should still be shown now and it sure would stop a load of kids playing on the railways now. Sure had an effect on me, so much so, I'm now a British Transport Police officer and have to deal with kids who dont know better! And we have to pick up the end result of pranks that go wrong!
Amanda , Beckenham Kent

I was in a public information film in 1975, it involved a boy daydreaming and thinking about his 'headmaster's' warning about trating the railway line as a sports field. This led to a fantasy sequence where a gory school sports day was enacted on the railway line. It caused an uproar at the time - and may have been banned. I would be interested to know anything about what happened to it.
Pete, Ringwood

This sent shivers down my back as soon as I saw the still never mind watching the film! It takes me all the way back to my childhood when this promotional film was the ghouliest thing I had ever seen. It preceeded the scary AIDS educational shorts but was far darker in it's message as it targetted vulnerable children. Having thrown myself into a duckpond on one occasion on holiday at Butlins I can say that learning to swim was a priority for me. It was and still is one of the most important life-saving skills you can teach a child and is one we have made sure both our children are equipped with. The message certainly got through with this film.
Tracey Earley, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

Ok I wasnt alive when this was published, but what were they thinking? It looks more like a stephen King thriller than a information film.
russell jacques, wirral england

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water scared me so much as a kid that I didn't learn to swim until I was 27. Watching it now still gives me the shivers. It's sacrier than Darleks!
Bob, Simi Valley, USA

I remember this film I was 5 or 6 I am now 37 and since viewing I have never ever been tempted to play in any water where you can't see the bottom! This includes the sea!! Maybe they should show it to the lunatic students who insist on throwing themselves off the bridge at Cambridge!
John, Castle Bytham UK

When are you going to show the one where the effeminate bloke goes into a police station to report his bike being stolen but won't say what's in the saddlebag. Haven't seen it for years and it's absolutely hilarious.
David, Halifax

Another nasty was the school sports day conducted on a railway line. Anyone remember that?
Dave Stupple, Hastings

I don't remember this film, but, growing up in rural North Norfolk, I did see something similarly scary. It was one of a number of films about farm safety that normally featured whirling bits of machinery. But in this instance the main attraction was an open slurry pit with a post and rail fence around it. Naturally the poor child decided to climb along the inside of the fence before slipping and falling into the mire where he was sucked down by the slurry (much like cowboys sinking in quicksand). It has haunted my worst nightmares ever since - thank you to the producers for the torment, if I could sue you I would.
Huw Sayer, London UK

I'm just over 40 and didn't even need to run your clip as I remember it as if it was on TV yesterday!
Jeanne Meggs, oxford

It will get the attention of the kids today. Good work
maureen, mk uk

Hmmm, A terrifying figure scares the unwise hoodie. This sounds like a wonderful advert, I think we should have some more done for the modern day 'Dark Waters' of life.
Eddie Dinnage, Nottingham, England

Surely nothing was as terrifying as the one where the kids touched the power lines (was it with a boat mast or a kite) I had to bury my face in the sofa for that one.
Chris, London

I think this was an excellent way to reach children and even young adults. They could use more of this to get through to kids about drugs, sex, sexual deseases, smoking and alchohol. Also what happens if you do not get a good education. Something like this can teach kids you do not want to grow up hanging around street corner all you life with the rest of the loosers. Get my drift.?
Ann Bennett,

I remember when I was a child seeing a public information poster in the street. It proclaimed in large scary letters - 'DIRTY WINSCREENS CAN BLIND!' Several days later my mother complained that I was squinting and walking into things. I told her I didn't want to go blind by looking at the cars. Having it explained was probably the most embarrassing moment of my life.
Jonathan Dodd, Newbury

I did not find the film at all disturbing. However, my daughter can swim. If others found it disturbing then they should consider why. We fear that which we have no defence against. If this film urges everyone to learn at least to float, and better still to swim, then it would truly have done it's job.
Rosemaqry Gaskell, Groton, Massachusetts USA

The "Spirit of the dark water" film is terrifying but was too early for me. However the "Play It Safe - Frisbee" film featuring young Jimmy getting zapped upon entering a substation to retrieve his frisbee left me with a lifelong obsession with high-voltage electricity transmission and distribution equipment. Even today I have nightmares in which I am trapped in a substation and I am still unable to walk beneath a pylon without a tangible feeling of fear! A feature on that particular film would be most welcome.
Sid, London

The Spirit of Lonely Water was clearly a take on the universal traditional stories of aggressive water spirits - such as Jeannie Greenteeth (known in some areas as Jinny or Jenny Greenteeth) - that lurk in water, ready to grab the unwary and drown them. I was terrified of, but fascinated by, Jeannie Greenteeth as a child.
Kaz, Briton in NJ, USA

I too have vivid memories of these films (and this one too!) although my favourite crepy/horror one was the one warning us about rabies - with the kid 'trapped' in the phone box whilst a rabid dog barks outside, foaming at the mouth! Might be scary but they sure hit home as a kid! But in this water one at least explains where Arnie took his Terminator catchphrase from - "I'll be back!" Priceless!
Jim, Skellefteċ, Sweden

By far the scariest public information film was about the dangers of escalators...when the doll got trapped and mangled in the escalators....
joanne, swindon, wilts

Whatever happened to the Public Information Broadcast? There's as much need for them today as there ever was! Stay away from water. Don't go with strangers. The green cross code. Perhaps we could add Don't carry knives, watch out for unattended bags in public places, and what to do in a CBRN incident?
James Morris, London

It's about time that we see things as they are. Why take the "softly, Softly" approach!
Heather, Swansea

I remember this film! It petrified me when I was a youngster, and it's still creepy. I learned to swim, but I'm never truly comfortable in the water, even to this day.

I am 41 and don't remember this scarey advert AT ALL and film nasties usually terrify me big time!!! I know they are simply films but the atmosphere and your eyes can petrify!!!
Carole Young, Glasgow, Scotland

Terrors from the darkness of youth !! Whoever says this film hasn't marked a generation is a liar. Do you also remember the film about leaving rubbish on the beach where the 'star' of the film was seen running barefoot towards a broken bottle and left you wincing even though it faded out just before contact ? Ouch !!
Rob Flint, Grimsby, UK

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