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CoI RIP, but Joe and Petunia live on

June 11, 2012

The Central Office of Information (CoI) passed away on March 31 – virtually unnoticed.

Central Office of Information

Central Office of Information (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It had a long and eventful life  – nearly a century if you include its early years as the Ministry of Information.  Thousands of talented journalists, actors, film-makers, and latterly, digital media experts, passed through its ranks at various times in their careers.

CoI was a victim of UK government cuts in marketing budgets.  It operated successfully as a central resource of communications expertise for myriad departments.

So it would have been good at writing its own obituary to go out on in a blaze of glory – but all that is left is a brief but poignant epitaph on the web.

Set up by the Atlee government in 1946, it continued to produce morale-boosting short films in the era of austerity which followed the war. The very name is quaint – how nice to have a central office where we can keep all the information!

Brendan Bracken, as head of the Ministry of Information, could be snippy about other films, but the CoI could also raise hackles with politicians – as with What a Life which triggered questions in the House.

It starred Richard Massingham , who featured in many CoI films of this period , many about health and the new NHS which would have been familiar – in earlier life Massingham worked as a doctor at the London Fever Hospital.

The CoI leaves a marvellous  legacy – in the public information films originally made as short films for mass cinema audiences, latterly as TV “adverts” which as public information films meant they could be shown on the BBC.

You can watch many of them on this National Archives site created for CoI’s 60th anniversary. The  entire CoI archive has now been acquired by the British Film Institute.

My favourite is the Coastguard film with the wonderful Joe and Petunia.

It was made in 1968 and, highly unusually for an animation short, remade and re-released in 2006.

It is simple, brilliant scripted, nicely observed down to Petunia’s reptilian tongue licking her ice cream, and the splendid the voices of Peter Hawkins (who also voiced Captain Pugwash)  and Wendy Craig.

Less well-known are the recent achievements of CoI in the digital era.  Its new media unit revolutionised digital engagement for the entire public sector in Britain by creating the Number Ten website and the first British Monarchy website.

The Royal Family has not looked back since – its current engagement with the public via social media and the web is quite extraordinary. Maybe we could bring back Joe and Petunia for a Jubilee Regatta special with all those sailing dingjies on the Thames?

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