Monday, 9 March 2009

The "Charley Says" Public Information Films: More Proof That There's A Lot We Can Learn From Cats

For about three months during the mid-Eighties, my schoolfriend Matthew Spitall and I became weirdly obsessed with cat food adverts. On our way to and from the bus stop, we would bellow their theme tunes, which included such unforgettable hits as "Kitty Cat: That's Living!" and "Cats Make Haste For The Munchies Taste (The Munchies Taste Makes Cats Make Haste)". This was in that brief halcyon period before the cruel social hierarchy of an apathetic English comprehensive state school stomps out that last, precious bit of unselfconscious primary school innocence. Back in our village, Matthew went by the nickname "Rocker": not because he liked to listen to rock - he did, and, incidentally, I will always be grateful to him for being the first person to play me These Dreams by Heart - but because he once hit his head on one and claimed not to have felt anything. Later, he would become one of the first people in my school to wear a leather jacket and drift away from me in favour of a gang of kids who smoked behind the local leisure centre. But during the winter of 1986-87, amongst myself and a few others, he was best known for his habit of inserting comedy meows into the popular songs and jingles of the day.

Among the broadcasts that occupied our thoughts - and those of many of our less cat-enamoured peers - at this time were the "Charley Says" public information films. These short animations followed the adventures of a young boy and his alternately killjoy/hedonist pet cat, Charley, and in the process warned of hazards variously overreported (deep water, strangers) and barely suspected (tables). They were originally broadcast in the early Seventies, but were given a rerun thirteen years later, ingraining the message that there IS DANGER EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD AND WE SHOULD ALL STAY INSIDE ALL DAY AND WEAR PROTECTIVE BODYSUITS into a new generation of children, and also giving us a glimpse of the kind of creature that might emerge if you crossed Bagpuss with a Health And Safety Official and a small, moth-eaten tiger.

Essentially, if you were at school in the UK at this point, and wanted to fully illustrate how lame a person was, there was no more cutting insult than repeating back whatever they'd just said to you in the voice of Charley's owner. Other popular parodies of the Charley films in my school year included a) whispering the words "Charley said.." to the person sitting next to you and making them spit all over their test paper, and b) making up endless variations at the bit of the Don't Talk To Strangers Charley film where Charley's owner says "I got an apple and Charley got something he likes" ("I got a blow-up doll and Charley got a crack pipe" etc). At the time, if you wanted an easy guide on how not to be cool and popular at school, you just had to look at Charleykid.

Yet what strikes me now is not the films' lameness, but their rudimentary charm, and, I think, though we weren't self-aware enough to know it, that was a big part of their original appeal for Matthew and me. You're a stronger person than me if you fail to get sucked into the expertly-plotted dramatic climax of the film where Charley falls in the river. And while my own cats run a fair gamut of voice tones, I still hope one day to find my own mog with an admonitory, Charley-style waffling meow who would warn me when danger is on the horizon, rather than just watching me fall foul of it whilst betraying just the hint of a supercilious, knowing smile.







7 comments:

Liz said...

sliiiiiiiiightly off topic but we had something similar here in NZ in the 1980s - a police officer and his dog called Constable Keith & Sniff, who told us about Stranger Danger etc. Except that Sniff was not a real dog but a puppet (a slightly odd looking puppet although it feels like blaspehmy saying that as they are Kiwi childhood icons)
http://www.freeimagehosting.net/uploads/ea0344f955.jpg

Tom said...

Now that is PROPER cult stuff: no Prodigy tribute, no youtube clips (or at least none I can find). Clearly Sniff is much cooler than Charley, although he does look eerily stuffed in that picture.

Lester and friends said...

I was a bit scared of Charley cause of his weirdly cantilevered head. The cat was OK, though.

Jo said...

Charley always seems to come off worse in these things. Where's the advert for "Charley says always make sure your accident prone cats have pet insurance"?

jmuhj said...

Ah, to have lived in the UK in those days. Wish we could return to them! I LOVE Charley.

Diamante Cat Collars said...

I'm a little young to remember these ad's all that much but do enjoy the Prodigy tune :-)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-5IeGUpuMo

animalfamily said...

these clips are priceless. incidentally, my chaplin sounds a little like that with his raspy, croaky meow