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Historians celebrate GPO Film Unit’s seventieth birthday

24 Sep 2009

Historians are paying tribute to a series of renowned films produced by a government department, 70 years after its work was cut short by war.

Still from the film Night Mail
Still from the film Night Mail

The General Post Office Film Unit, established in 1933, collaborated with some of the greatest artists and writers of the age  - including Poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten - to document modern life.

Media historian Dr Scott Anthony, from The University of Manchester, says that not only are the GPO’s eclectic mix of curios and masterpieces entertaining, but ‘amazingly relevant’ today.

“The influence of these films can be seen in so many places, from Coronation Street to reality soaps, Ealing Studios and The Green Cross Code Man.

“They have an immense cultural importance to this country,” he said.

Dr Anthony and Dr James Mansell – also from the University’s School of Arts, Histories and Cultures  – will host academics and experts from around the world to give their take on the Unit’s work.

The films pioneered the use of genres such as comedy, the musical and abstract art in their quest to inform the public.

Auden, Britten and others including writer J. B. Priestley and painter William Coldstream, all worked at the GPO Film Unit which existed between 1933 and 1939.

The Unit is best known today for the film Night Mail, which aired of one of Auden’s best known poems.

The poet also bizarrely played Father Christmas in one of the films called Calendar of the Year.

Thanks to the enthusiasm of philatelists, the period’s most popular GPO film was ‘The King’s Stamp’ (1935) charting the history of the King George V stamp and the processes involved in its design and manufacture. It had a score by Benjamin Britten.

And the most commercially successful was ‘North Sea’ (1938) a reconstruction of an incident in 1937 in which an Aberdeen trawler was saved by the radio service after it got into distress.

Dr Anthony said: “Long tarred by the eccentric brush of Harry Enfield’s ‘Mr Chumley Warner’, the films are now being reassessed and being seen as the true works of art that they really are.

“Not only are they watchable but their broad-minded and amazingly contemporary approach to issues such as citizenship, public services, Britain’s place in the world, the effect of new technology and the nation’s diet, appears to be becoming ever more relevant.”

He added: “Internationally important directors, artists, composers, poets, painters and writers took shelter at the GPO Film Unit in the years following the depression or to escape dictatorships.

“For this reason the Unit has long fascinated contemporary artists, including Alan Bennett, whose new play focuses on an imaginary meeting between an old aged Auden and Britten.”

Other examples of GPO films include:

The Glorious Sixth of June (1934), a tongue in cheek drama about how a reduction in GPO charges was finally brought to parliament despite attempts by the country's enemies to prevent the announcement.

A Fairy of the Phone (1936), which conveyed the information given to telephone subscribers through the format of a musical review.

The Uk’s first ‘pop culture film’ Spare Time (1939), which examined ways which working people in England spent their spare time.

God’s Chillun (1938), an account of the slave trade in the West Indies, and the islands' development since emancipation.

A Colour Box (1935) an abstract film which advertises cheaper rates for the parcel post.

We Live in Two Worlds (1937), which seemed to anticipate the internet.

N or NW (1937), a romantic comedy on the importance of postcodes.

Notes for editors

Dr Anthony is available for comment

Film excerpts are available for broadcast. Please credit the Royal Mail Film Archive

The Projection of Britain: Place and Identity in GPO Films, 1933-1945 will take place on Thursday and Friday 25-26 September at The University of Manchester.

For media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman

Media Relations

Faculty of Humanities

The University of Manchester

0161 275 0790

07717 881567