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State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales

Liz McNiven looks at the community service announcements made by the New South Wales government to promote public health, agricultural education and road safety.

The State Archives and Records Authority of NSW holds more than 500 film titles in their collection documenting the history of the concerns of state government. These include water, sewerage and electricity; agriculture and public health. State Archives is the NSW government agency now responsible for managing official records and the state archives, including these films.

Government agencies have commissioned films to publicise or showcase their services since 1898 (see the Lumière collection). They serve to promote and educate, informing their target audiences of new programs or initiatives.

These eight films are a small but representative sample. They include community service announcements from the 1930s and ‘40s, and promotional films from the 1950s and ‘60s. The NSW Department of Health and the Department of Public Health commissioned four of the films; two were made for the Milk Board of NSW; and the remaining two titles promoted the work of the Department of Agriculture and the Road Safety Council of NSW. The majority were shot in black-and-white except for White River of Life and Schools for Farmers, both produced in colour in the early 1950s.

These postwar films were made at a time when production of Australian features sank to an all-time low. Commissions from the government supported the film industry over a lean period in its history. In Sydney in the 1950s and ‘60s, there were only a handful of film studios with sound stages in Sydney, including Ajax Films (which produced The Constant Threat, 1946) and Artransa Park Film Studios (where The Happy Years, c1958, was made).

These NSW films reflect the dominant culture of their day – a culture that underpins the society we inhabit today. They cover a period where Sydney changed from a small, mono-cultural society to a growing multicultural society. Postwar immigration, combined with a local baby boom, increased the population and changed the socio-economic, political and cultural landscape in NSW. Over the past 50 years women, children and Indigenous peoples gained recognition of their human rights. It is interesting to note the representation of women and children, and the lack of an Indigenous presence, in these films. These films reflect a time in history now superseded by new laws (such as anti-discrimination legislation) and attitudes.

While some of these films depict a distant past, some things haven’t changed as much as you might expect. For example, the lessons in Safety First (c1936) remain as relevant as ever. It shows children learning about road safety at school and then reinforcing these lessons through songs and games played at home. The content of the lesson may have changed along with our roads, but the method used is surprisingly similar to that of today.

Schools for Farmers (c1950) supports primary industry production and rural leadership through courses provided for farmers at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College. This NSW Department of Agriculture program placed farmers on the cutting edge of primary industry production and was made at a time when the farming sector was undergoing change. The norm began to shift from traditional small farm holdings handed down through generations of the same family to the larger, economically viable farming enterprises of today.

The various health department films promote government services, support child health and try to increase awareness of contemporary health concerns. The Department of Public Health commissioned The Happy Years (c1958) to promote the School Medical Service and The Constant Threat (1946), which publicised mobile X-ray caravans as the latest tool in the postwar fight against tuberculosis. The Health Department sponsored Eyes Right (c1950) to advocate for preventative eye care, particularly for children. Disturber of the Peace (c1945) makes a strong case for a reduction in suburban noise pollution following the end of the Second World War, using an alarmist tone reminiscent of modern anti-smoking campaigns.

The NSW Milk Board actively promoted the consumption of milk and milk-based products and underpinned the development of a milk foods culture. Sponsored films like Take the Tempo from the Teeth (1948) and White River of Life (c1950) advocate a diet high in milk for everybody, from the very young to the elderly, and closely link milk consumption with good looks and healthy teeth, skin and bodies.

The Milk Board screened films for milk producers in rural localities across NSW and during Health Week held screenings for school children. In 1950, they set up a major display at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney and screened their films to a general audience. In the same year the Milk Board reported holding 75 screenings for producers and 41 screenings for consumers, with an estimated audience of 5000 people.

NSW government departments screened their films across the state to targeted audiences and to the general public. The Department of Health organised community meetings in suburban Sydney and rural NSW and also screened public education and awareness films in local cinemas to mark Health Week. The Country Women’s Association and the shire or municipal councils supported these screenings.

These historically important films document the NSW government’s communication of its policies between the 1930s and 1960s. They also provide a snapshot of the type of films commissioned by government departments not just in New South Wales but across Australia. There are about 100 sponsored film titles on ASO, many of them commissioned or produced by government agencies such as the Commonwealth Bank and Australia Post.

The State Archives and Records Authority of NSW have made further films accessible on their YouTube channel. This will enhance research into and use of their collection and support our understanding of how past government policies influenced the present social, cultural and political environment.

Titles in this collection

The Constant Threat 1946

This short film promotes the importance of having a free chest x-ray, provided by the NSW Department of Public Health, to test for tuberculosis.

Disturber of the Peace c1945

A short government announcement advising citizens to consider each other’s need for sleep and to keep noise levels low when others are sleeping.

Eyes Right c1950

A short public awareness film about the importance of eye health. It explains how our eyes function and how to protect them.

The Happy Years c1958

This film showcases the health services provided to state school students.

Safety First c1936

This early road safety film uses drama, artwork and song to show children the correct way to behave when on the road.

Schools for Farmers c1950

This short film promotes schools for farmers during vacation time at Hawkesbury Agricultural College.

Take the Tempo from the Teeth 1948

An early promotional film advocating milk as a key part of a balanced diet, with teeth acting as the barometer for good health.

White River of Life c1950

A short government film made in the early 1950s to promote the health qualities of milk and milk-based foods.