Thursday, 11 December 2014

GPO shorts

No, not a post about the sartorial laxness, or otherwise, of our posties, but an afternoon at the bf's watching short documentary films made by the GPO Film Unit for release in British cinemas.  (They all came from the BFI dvd collection 'We Live in Two Worlds.) We obviously know how to live....

We kicked off with 'The Horsey Mail' of 1938, and as we were about to spend a short break in the village it was all very appropriate.  (It could be that the bf chose Horsey for the film connection...but he's not saying much.)   The director was the 22 year old Pat Jackson.  Simply it depicts how both the GPO and the local population coped in the aftermath of a flood caused by the sea breaking through coastal defenses at Horsey Gap.  The film centred on two postal workers: Bob O'Brian and Claude Simmons.  Just hearing their accents brought me to the edge of tears, so it's not surprising that it was my favourite - simply because its setting, for although I don't live in Norfolk I have a deep love for the place: three of my grandparents came from there (Melton Constable and Foulsham), and I used to visit it a lot as a child and young adult, and I always long to return, perhaps to live there.
Not taking notes at the time I'm a bit uncertain of the running order so I've kept all the animated films until last, which was just about what happened - I think.  Next, then, was 'A Job in a Million', an earnest film; an attempt, in an almost Reithian manner, to 'inform, educate, and entertain' the cinema-going public with the story of a fourteen year old boy, a school leaver, as he embarked on a career in the GPO as a telegram messenger.  All very worthy and all rather stiff and formal too.  The GPO as a stern father figure, but with your best interests at heart.
 'The Saving of Bill Hewitt', made for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Post Office Savings Bank, concerned a weather-beaten fisherman, the real Bill Hewitt, in a Cornish fishing community.  Bill and all the other characters were played by members of the village community of Mousehole (though uncredited) and not actors. The music was by Benjamin Britten.  It has been called the first 'story' documentary, in that it used techniques used by John Grierson in other GPO Film Unit documentaries, most famously in 'Night Mail' of 1936, but applied them to a fictitious narrative, though, of course, to similar didactic purposes.  It shouldn't be forgot that the dialogue in 'Night Mail' was written for the GPO workers, although based on their own observed speech.  Nor should it be forgotten that some of the scenes in 'Night Mail' were not filmed on location but re-created in the studio environment.  Back to the story:  Bill and his, younger and rather more handsome, fellow fisherman are out of a job when the fishing boat they worked runs aground.  Bill has little option to take a job in the quarry, but he would rather go back to the sea.  This gentle and clever film follows their successful attempt to buy a fishing boat of their own.  All these films highlight the dangers of using real people to play themselves: it can get a little mannered.  There is a real contrast in this film between the easiness of the villagers before the camera and the stiffness of the staff of the Savings Bank.  Unfortunately it can all become quite unintentionally comic, but that shouldn't distract from the intention and sometimes beauty of these films.
'The Fairy of the Phone'.  Enough of this high-minded seriousness! This film stars Charlotte Leigh as a somewhat bossy fairy - somewhat earth bound too (she'd need pretty big wings to get her airborne) - educating the great British public on correct telephone etiquette.  It was all rather witty in a sort of Joyce Grenfell, Flanders and Swan manner.  Gently subversive and very British.  I suppose (and somewhat unkindly) I could describe the grand finale as cut price (perhaps even bargain basement) Busby Berkeley, with members of the GPO staff hoofing it up in self-conscious style with lines of rather elegant telephonists doing a Tiller line.  Alas, for all her hard work the Fairy received a rather wilted bouquet as her reward.  Bizarre but wonderful.
'N or NW' was the surreal story of love by letter, the object of which was to get you to use a Postcode when addressing a letter.  It was touch and go out there in the land of love for a while but love did triumph in the end!

Time then for the animated stuff.  We watched 'Love on the Wing' (1938),  'Rainbow Dance' (1936), 'Trade Tattoo' (1937), and 'The Tocher' (1938).  These were perhaps even more remarkable than the live action films.  'Love on the Wing' directed and drawn by Norman McLaren has an almost frenetic energy to it and was looked at askance by the bigwigs at the GPO as being far too, well, crude - there are some decidedly phallic looking drawings (blink and you miss them). 'The Tocher' (Scots for 'token') was completely the work of Lotte Reninger who was from Germany.  It is delightful animated film on the theme of love and marriage.  Reninger is credited with making the first animated feature, 'The Adventures of Prince Ahmed'.  'Rainbow Dance' and 'Trade Tattoo', both directed by Len Lye - who also directed 'N or NW', were crazy psychedelic creations that made me wonder if they were an influence on the Psychedelic art scene and artists such as Peter Blake. That reminded me of a later GPO sponsored film from the 'Sixties', 'Picture to Post' directed by Sarah Erulkar, which managed to blend high-mindedness with real style.  The final 'psychedelic' scene is particularly cool.  You can find that on the fantastic BFI dvd collection 'Shadows of Progress'.

A little historical note: The GPO Film Unit was established in 1933 by Sir Stephen Tallents, then Head of Public relations at the GPO and lasted until 1940 when it was subsumed into the Ministry of Information, becoming (I think) part of the Crown Film Unit.  For the first four years it was under the direction of John Grierson, it became integral part of the burgeoning British Documentary film movement.

As the bf said: "Quite the exciting evening."  Quite.

The Horsey Mail - 1938

Producer
Director                 Patrick Jackson

The Saving of Bill Hewitt - 1936

Producer                John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti
Director                  Harry Watt
Cinematographer  

The Fairy of the Phone - 1936

Producer                 
Director                  William Coldstream

A Job in a Million - 1937

Producer                 John Grierson
Director                   Evelyn Spice

N or NW - 1937

Producer                 Alberto Cavalcanti
Director                   Len Lye

Love on the Wing - 1938

Producer                Alberto Cavalcanti (uncredited)
Director/animator  Norman McLaren

The Tocher

Producer/Director/Animator   Lotte  Reninger              

Rainbow Dance - 1937

Producer                 John Grierson
Director                   Len Lye

Trade Tattoo - 1937

Producer                 John Grierson
Director                   Len Lye

I also mentioned:

Picture to Post - 1969

Producer                John Durst
Director                  Sarah Erulkar
Cinematographer           - 

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