Most of us are familiar with the World War Two information poster. Indeed only those that have been in a coma for the past couple of years could have failed to miss the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. This seems to have become the most famous, though ironically it was not used at the time. Several other well known wartime posters were produced with the purpose of persuading the country to watch what it was saying:
· Careless Talk Costs Lives
· Walls Have Ears
· Be Like Dad, Keep Mum
are still familiar phrases to us today. But do we ever give any thought to what lies behind those exhortions to watch your mouth?
I recently watched a film which was made to be a feature length moving Careless Talk Costs Lives poster. ‘Next of Kin’ was released by Ealing Studios in 1942, after originally being commissioned for troop information. It sets out in detail how enemy spying worked, the kind of information that spies were after and how this information is easily given away. The cost of this careless talk – telegrams to the next of kin – is spelt out starkly. It is not just a series of instructions – it is an involving story peopled by sympathetic characters and acted out by familiar actors. The storyline is compelling and I’m sure would have held the interest of the contemporary viewer (especially the bits with the striptease and the topless model – included to retain troop interest I’ll wager).
It would certainly have made people stop and think about what they said and where they said it. And for the first time it made me stop and think about the story behind the posters. I had seen them so often in my social history books that I had never actually given a great deal of thought to why it was such an important message. But through this film I now understand why all troop movements had to be kept secret. I also see exactly why not another soul could be trusted to keep information to themselves, even if they betrayed by accident. The overall message is to never trust a soul, not even those that you are closest to. This must have been so difficult, in time of war people must have been crying out to talk to someone about their worries and their work. It reminds me of the sad story of the man whose Father was convinced that he was a coward and was shirking a “proper” wartime role. He died thinking that his son had brought him shame. But that son was an important cog in the code breaking works at Bletchley Park and was unable to give anyone any indication of his role. It must have taken a huge amount of stoicism and bravery to honour his vow of silence in this situation.
I highly recommend ‘Next of Kin’ to anyone who would like to know the story behind the enforced silence.