Stop! Look! Pow! Splink! The British Road Safety Superheroes

Looking back at the strange world of British Green Cross Code safety films.

Making sure that children – and, for that matter, adults – know how and when to safely cross the road seems to be one of the more laudable bits of social engineering that governments and authorities engage in. It’s vital information, obviously, yet not something that you would know instinctively or even necessarily the sort of thing we can rely on feckless parents to teach properly. Of course, it’s one of the extra-curricular educational jobs of primary school teachers, one that comes as part of the generally sheep-herding that is required whenever a class full of kids is taken out into the wider world and I’ll admit to feeling a twinge of guilt whenever I (safely) break rules about waiting at red lights while out walking and passing a crocodile of brats being kept impatiently on one side of the road until the lights tell them that they can go – the awareness of when a road is empty and safe to cross against a red is something that comes later in life, but me crossing ‘against the rules’ no doubt undermines the efforts of the teachers. Still, I have places to be, things to do.

Road safety has been a part of the public information film curriculum since the 1950s, with a series of ads that will be very familiar to anyone who watched kids’ TV well into the 1990s. It all began in 1953 – just as mass ownership of TV sets began to be a thing – with Elsie Mills’ invention Tufty Fluffytail, an anthropomorphic stop-motion red squirrel and his animal friends who learn the hard way that crossing the road willy-nilly can lead to accidents. Voiced – of course – by Bernard Cribbins, the Tufty shorts ran for years, with the odd update to move with the times (i.e. remaking the films in colour) and the introduction of the Tufty Club for under-fives, which produced road safety books for parents and helped reinforce the appeal of the character.

Of course, not every child was going to respond to a child-like squirrel and so alternatives were produced to grab the attention of the slightly older child. The most exciting of these appeared in 1967, when Adam West came over to the UK to shoot Kerb Drill with Batman, where the caped crusader teaches a bunch of kids the Kerb Dill, then the primary set of road-crossing instructions for children. This was a rather brilliant bit of thinking because not only would every kid love Batman (this was, after all, the height of the TV show’s popularity) but West was the ideal person to do it – a man used to making the ludicrous and the mundane sound dramatic and someone who could keep a straight-face through anything. He wasn’t going to undersell this and indeed he doesn’t. The original clip was thought lost for years before being discovered by Kaleidoscope,  the archivists who specialise in finding rare footage, getting news stories about it and then seemingly burying it away again where only the right sort of academics can access it. Luckily, once it was out of the bag, other people have chosen to make it available to a wider audience and here it is:

These early films first appeared when road safety itself was still in its infancy and worked within the auspices of the Kerb Drill, a perfectly solid set of instructions  – but one that was, like most of British life it seems, fixated on military procedure, discipline and terminology. It was a set of barked commands (“Stop! Walk!”) that children found difficult to remember, especially when the only person actually there to shout the commands was themself. In 1970, a new, slogan-heavy set of instructions was introduced – the military ‘drill’ was replaced with a ‘code’ – the Green Cross Code to be exact – and a new series of ads came along to join Tufty and pals.

The new Code was initially promoted with a variety of celebrity spots, each more unlikely than the last – pop stars Alvin Stardust and Les Gray from Mud, footballer Kevin Keegan and boxer Joe Bugner all popped up to show older errant brats the error of their ways. The best was probably the one with Jon Pertwee – after all, he had been Doctor Who until recently and while it might have been better to have filmed the ad while he was still in the role (or at least in costume), his spot in memorable for a wide-eyed appearance and the dramatic slogan ‘SPLINK!’ – that’s ‘safe’, ‘pavement’. ‘look and listen’, ‘if’ (as in ‘if traffic is coming’), ‘no traffic’ and ‘keep looking’. Yeah… you can see why that cumbersome and rather desperate set of rules didn’t catch on. Clearly, the word to simplify things had not yet filtered through to some people. Thankfully, ‘Stop Look Listen’ soon became an easier-to-remember slogan.

It was 1976 when a rethink saw the celebs – always at risk of being a passing fad – replaced with a new character, The Green Cross Man, a superhero in a rather medical-looking green and white outfit who would magically appear at the roadside to instruct naughty children in the error of their road-crossing ways. The Green Cross Man was played by bodybuilder, stuntman and actor David Prowse, an imposing figure who was already known to British cult movie fans for appearances in everything from Hammer Horror to A Clockwork Orange and who was on the cusp of international celebrity for filling the costume of Darth Vader in Star Wars. I say ‘filling the costume’ rather than ‘playing the part’ because famously, Prowse was dubbed by James Earl Jones in the three films he made (and also replaced for the one scene when Vader’s helmet came off). Prowse would come up with a series of shifting reasons for why this happened over the years – everything from the film needing another American voice to the film needing a black actor – but this was self-delusion at its peak. Everyone who heard Prowse speak knew exactly why he’d been dubbed – his heavy Bristolian accent, one that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t modify, would’ve rendered the character laughable (no offence to the people of Bristol – but heavy English rural accents of any type would hardly fit in with a film set ‘in a galaxy far, far away’). We might also note that Prowse is either a strong, silent type or else is redubbed in pretty much all his other movies – and in the Green Cross Code shorts.

This clearly got to Prowse, who either didn’t respond well to voice training or else had a misguided sense of local pride that prevented him from modifying his accent. He might have been ahead of his time in that sense – strong accents are now much more prevalent on British TV, very fashionable with producers keen to emphasise their ‘inclusivity’. But this was a different time. He was fairly powerless to do anything most of the time – even Star Wars could’ve simply replaced him with another tall bloke had he kicked off too much. In truth, Prowse was always cast for his physical presence rather than his acting ability and generally had to put up with it. But the Green Cross Man ads were different. They were hugely popular and the Green Cross Man was an iconic character that kids loved and, more significantly, instantly recognised. Just as importantly, this was now post-Star Wars and Prowse was – however technically – one of the stars of the most financially successful film in history. For the third ad, he put his foot down and insisted that his own voice be used.

He’s not awful and younger viewers might wonder what all the fuss was about – but in truth, the Green Cross Man does have a more dramatic presence in the first two ads. This feels more low-key and folksy. Notably, the producers got their own back by making him share the limelight this time with the Green Cross Droid, a tin-can robot that was presumably being positioned to replace Prowse should he become more demanding. And that’s just what happened – the Droid took over for a series of ads in the 1980s. There was also an animated version of the Green Cross Man – voiced by Peter Hawkins in 1976 – and assorted comic strip print ads.

Prowse himself toured schools across the country to hammer home the safety message, so he was clearly committed to the character despite any misgivings he might have had about being dubbed (and of course, these public appearances allowed him to use his own voice). He would return to the role in 2014 as part of Road Safety Week, with the 80-year-old telling adults not to look at their phones or get lost in music while crossing the road – because that’s where we’ve come to as a species apparently. These were novelty nostalgia pieces more than serious campaigns – and you do wonder if the 20-somethings it was pitched at even remembered the original campaign. They are not very good and that’s not because of Prowse – the whole thing looks like a substandard fan fiction piece.

Like the rest of the golden age of public information films, the Green Cross Code ads seem to be a thing of the past – these days, there are other ways of getting the information across and we are generally left to our own devices when it comes to not dying in horrible accidents. Prowse died in 2020 and is on record as saying that the Green Cross Man was his proudest achievement.

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  1. I only recently came across the Adam West clip. I’m ALL about 60’s Batman, so day made!
    Were hundreds of British children being run over, or something? I thought it was common sense not to run in to moving traffic.

    1. Public Information Films were often about stating the bleedin’ obvious and panicking about everything. To be fair, kids probably do – or at least did – need to be told the basics of road safety though.

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