In the late 1940s, the Labour government headed by Clement Attleee set about remaking Britain. It created the modern welfare state. It created the National Health Service. Less famously, except perhaps among readers of CityMetric, it also passed the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, which placed limits on the growth of large cities in the form of green belts, and which created “development corporations” empowered to build new towns.
As well as passing all these reforms, of course, the government had to explain them. Enter the Central Office of Information and its cheeky, animated chappie Charley. From the BFI:
At the behest of then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, the animation studio, Halas & Batchelor, produced a series of eight lighthearted films featuring Charley, a kind of ‘everyman’ cartoon character, to convey information about the various reforms – Charley’s March of Time (1948), explaining the purpose of the National Insurance Acts of July 1948 or Your Very Good Health (1948), illustrating how the National Health Service operates.
What strikes me about that is quite how existential those titles are. “Your Very Good Health” is a film about not being in very good health. “Charley’s March of Time” is a film about the fact that you too will get old and there is nothing you can do about it, it comes to us all, you laugh now but one day you too will have back pain and hate modern music and hang on what did I come in here for.
Anyway. The reason I mention all this is that, in one of his other adventures, Charley also moved to a new town. Here’s the film’s title card:
They thought long and hard about that name, clearly.
The film begins with Charley cycling to work, cheerfully saying “Hullo!” to passers-by. This being 1947, you can definitely tell that he spells “Hullo!” with a U”.
At 00:44 he gets overtaken by a bald old bloke, which is a bit embarrassing.
Then in direct contravention of decent road safety, he starts chatting direct to camera, totally ignoring the road ahead. Charley is that cyclist the Daily Mail is always whining about. Charley is a bloody menace.
“My this is a grand way to start the day. Bit different from what it used to be - I can tell ya!”
Then we get a flashback to What It Used To Be – specifically, to before the new town came along – and things get a bit frightening. Suddenly, poor old Charley is on a bus, looking uncomfortably like the old bloke has just put his hand on his leg:
Meanwhile, the bus is full of sinister, shadowy figures, of the sort that one imagines inhabiting Soviet information films of the same era:
“Took a bloke a good hour to get to work. As for the view – if you could call it a view!”
You could not call it a view.
It goes on in this vein for a bit (“You didn’t ask when you were getting near the town. You knew without looking... Not even a blimin’ place for the kids to play, poor little blighters…”) before we get to the most disturbing moment of the film. That’s when it accidentally makes the population of Britain’s towns – the people it is, presumably, intended to appeal to – look like a stream of cockroaches or something similarly verminous, flowing off the bus...
...and into the factories:
Charley, you will notice, is the only figure in this crowd given any individuality. The others are just an undistinguished lumpen mass of humanity.
Anyway, he’s in his drab little office, thinking about this, when he has a brainwave:
At that point, he and a dozen overs spontaneously develop the ability to fly, crash upwards through their roofs, and all nip off to a town planning meeting.
I absolutely promise I am not making this up.
There we are quickly appraised of the problem:
“Our town has turned into a monster! The surrounding country is being eaten up, it by bit!”
At this point, the film shows the town spreading, like a stain.
But it rapidly becomes clear that densification is easier said than done:
“If we’re to make room for everyone without spreading out, we must build upwards!”
“Don’t be silly, I won’t get a pram up there!”
“What about my garden!”
Despite these teething problems, they come up with a solution surprisingly quickly: a new town out beyond the green belt. It will have separate industrial and residential areas, linked by “byways and cycle tracks”, and with the factories downwind to ensure smoke doesn’t get into people’s homes. We are promised a nursery school within 400 yards of every home (ambitious), “good shops, a posh theatre, cinemas, a concert hall and a civic centre”…
But it’s all deeply surreal. We see Charley laying a carpet, which turns out to be a flower bed, and sprouts flowers the minute he gives it any water. At one point, the one bloke who turns up at every meeting who is mostly concerned about pubs demands a pub. He tries to put one down on the town, and all the other buildings freak out and run away from it.
You can tell the pub is a pub because it wobbles like a drunk, and the music suddenly goes a bit trombone-y. Look, it’s in the road and wobbling:
On the whole though everyone is pleased with their new town:
The line that vexes me most, though, is this:
“Flats for people who want ‘em, hostels where the young people could get together, and bungalows for the elderly...”
Wait... “Where the young people could get together”? Get together how, exactly? Was this a thing in 1948? Did people go stay in hostels so they could... get together? What?
“I’m telling ya,” Charley says at the end, “It works out fine. Just you try it.”
Some people did try it, in the end. The result was Stevenage.
Anyway, If you want to watch the whole thing – and I quite genuinely suggest you do – it’s here.
And if you have any suggestions for animated characters that might help us solve the current housing crisis, please do feel free to write in.
Thanks to Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities for alerting me to this work of post-war genius.