GPO Film Unit

Introduction

The post office film unit established by Sir Stephen Tallents in 1933 will be forever associated with John Grierson and his idea of documentary cinema.

During his spell in charge (1933-1937), Grierson oversaw the creation of a film school that he attempted to direct towards a socially useful purpose. J. B. Priestley remembered, “if you wanted to see what camera and sound could really do, you had to see some little film sponsored by the post office or the Gas, Light & Coke company.”

This early strand of the GPO Unit’s filmmaking is best represented by its ‘masterpiece’, Night Mail (1936), which borrowed from the aesthetics of Soviet cinema to turn an explanation of the work of the travelling post office into a hymn to collective labour. To quote Priestley again, “Grierson and his young men, with their contempt for easy big prizes and soft living, their taut social conscience, their rather Marxist sense of the contemporary scene always seemed to me at least a generation ahead of the dramatic film people.”

However, the significance of Grierson’s project at the GPO Film Unit would be more apparent in its eventual influence than its immediate impact. What is perhaps more important to stress is that this idealistic strand was not the only or, perhaps, even the most important part of its work.

The GPO Film Unit had been established as part of the post office’s new public relations department. It was a typically experimental move. For much of the interwar period, the GPO was the largest employer in Britain: it had around a quarter of a million employees and was at the cutting edge of business organisation and technological research. Thus, for example, massive government investment in the telephone network saw the production of instructional films such as Telephone Workers (1933), an early attempt to help train a large staff that was spread over several geographically distinct sites.

As well as creating a national communications infrastructure, the GPO was attempting to introduce commercial ideas of customer service into what was then a government department. Thus one job of the GPO Film Unit was to find ways to bridge the gap between the stern norms of communication in the Civil Service and popular understanding. The serious impulse behind entertaining musical fantasies like The Fairy of the Phone (1936) was an attempt to find new ways to communicate with the public. This was an essential requirement if you believed, as Stephen Tallents, the GPO’s Head of Public Relations did, that popular expectations of government were evolving. As he put it, the idea of government as being negative was being superseded by the idea that government should be positive, moving from “the preventing of the bad to the encouraging of the good”.

The work of experimental artists and filmmakers such as Lotte Reiniger, Norman McLaren and Len Lye can, then, be understood as part of a wider GPO project, exemplified by Giles Gilbert Scott’s Jubilee Telephone Kiosk and the development of services such as the Speaking Clock and ‘999’, to move government into closer and more harmonious contact with the British people.

First and foremost, the Film Unit was responsible for promoting the reputation of the GPO, emphasising the scale and success of its technological ambitions. This task informed the bombast of films like the comparatively big budget BBC – The Voice of Britain (1935), as well as the internationalist idealism of We Live in Two Worlds (1937), which envisaged how new communications technology would herald the coming of a global civilisation. This thematic technophilia was also reflected in the Unit’s method, especially in the sound experiments organised by the Brazilian émigré Alberto Cavalcanti. Among the GPO’s sonic achievements was the first use of recorded speech (6.30 Collection, 1934), modernist experiments in sound montage (Song of Ceylon, 1934) and the employ of now feted composers such as Benjamin Britten, Maurice Jaubert and Darius Milhaud.

This characteristic of the Unit’s work became more evident after Grierson was replaced by Cavalcanti and a theoretical approach to ‘realism’ became less important than developing a variety of inventive and colloquial idioms. At the most obvious level, the Unit pursued celebrity endorsements – persuading cricketer Len Hutton and family to appear in What’s On Today (1938), for example – but this approach also began to prompt interesting experiments in film form.

Harry Watt’s The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936) is often referred to as the first ‘story documentary’. The film combined real locales and non-professional actors with a narrative based script. Let off the leash by Cavalcanti, Watt began consciously to blend the aesthetic and social commitment of the early Grierson documentaries with narrative devices borrowed from Hollywood. This resulted in the GPO’s most theatrically successful production, North Sea (1938), which wore its ‘educational’ brief more lightly and made an overt attempt to entertain. According to Denis Foreman’s memoir, such fusions later fascinated the Italian Neo-Realists.

Cavalcanti’s reign also saw the production of Humphrey Jennings’ masterful Spare Time (1939), an imaginatively edited catalogue of working-class Britain at play. Playful and humane, Jennings’ delightfully undidactic film was exhibited at the New York International Exhibition of 1939 as an example of an emerging ‘new Britain.’

On the outbreak of the Second World War, the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit, and its morale-boosting mode was effectively nationalised, a move which resulted in the production of patriotic wartime classics such as London Can Take It (1940), Target for Tonight (1941) and Listen to Britain (1942). Now led by the sensitive producer, Ian Dalrymple, this was perhaps the Unit’s most triumphant phase, ironic considering the amount of governmental opposition that Tallents and the Film Unit had faced in peacetime.

Although the GPO Film Unit was eventually subsumed by the newly created Central Office of Information in 1946, and many of the filmmakers from its golden age migrated into commercial film production and television, the post office continued to make films. Early GPO efforts like Cable Ship (1933) and Under the City (1934) had found their audience among children and in the provincial village halls of various voluntary organisations; later post office films concentrated on these more narrowly defined educational purposes. Indeed, later children’s programmes such as Postman Pat were arguably the long-term result of the public affection for the post office which the GPO Film Unit had been established to embed some 50 years earlier.

Scott Anthony

This article originally appeared on BFI Screenonline

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