Tag Archives: Night Mail

Great British Film stamps released

A new stamp issue celebrates six key British movies produced since the Second World War, with the accompanying Miniature Sheet focusing on the work of the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit, which produced ground-breaking documentaries for the General Post Office in the 1930s.

Secrets and Lies, £1.28

Secrets and Lies, £1.28

Lawrence of Arabia, £1.28

Lawrence of Arabia, 1st class

Bend it like Beckham, £1.28

Bend it like Beckham, £1.28

Chariots of Fire, £1.28

Chariots of Fire, £1.28

A Matter of Life and Death, £1.28

A Matter of Life and Death, 1st class

2001: A Space Odyssey, £1.28

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1st

In the 1930s the GPO Film Unit produced several films, regarded as documentaries. The unit was established initially to explain postal and telephone services, and heighten the reputation of the Post Office, in an era when it was leading the world in technological innovation. This Miniature Sheet celebrates four of the most well-known films.

A Colour Box, 1st class

A Colour Box, 1st class

Night Mail, 1st Class

Night Mail, 1st Class

Spare Time, 1st class

Spare Time, 1st class

Love on the Wing, 1st class

Love on the Wing, 1st class

The immortal Night Mail film is marked with a stamp for the first time, and a stamp for Love on the Wing, a film by director Norman McLaren also marks his centenary in 2014. Night Mail is about a London, Midland and Scottish Railway mail train from London to Scotland. A poem by W. H. Auden was written for it, used in the closing few minutes, as was music by Benjamin Britten. Our archive holds the original poster artwork for Night Mail as well as many others.

Original artwork by Pat Keely (POST 109/377)

Original artwork by Pat Keely (POST 109/377)

The Great British Film stamps are available from 13 May online at www.royalmail.com/personal/stamps-collectibles-gifts, by phone on 08457 641 641 and and in 10,000 Post Offices throughout the UK.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border

On Thursday 11 July Dr Scott Anthony will give a talk here at the BPMA on the classic film Night Mail which will be accompanied by a screening. In this blog Dr Anthony talks about Night Mail‘s timeless relevance.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.

Night Mail – the 1936 cinematic account of the travelling post office, to text by WH Auden – is the most famous film from the GPO documentary unit. It’s as evocative of the 1930s as Battersea Power Station, the Shell Guides and Agatha Christie.

For much of the past 20 years Night Mail has also been deeply unfashionable. It’s liable to be seen as the kind of thing that might have starred Harry Enfield’s Mr Chumley Warner.

It’s true that, for a documentary, parts of Night Mail are not that realistic. For a start, the scenes of travelling post office workers sorting the mail were filmed on the GPO’s lot in Blackheath with the posties urged, Star Trek style, to sway gently from side to side.

Still from Night Mail.

Still from Night Mail.

Indeed, Night Mail is actually the film of a train set. The GPO had commissioned the exquisite Bassett-Lowke to produce a miniature travelling post office for display at exhibitions. The miniature proved so popular with the public that it then became a documentary. When people say that Night Mail portrays a model post office, they’re more right than they know.

However, the genesis of Night Mail – the corporate promo – was far from straightforward, and it began with the future Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee. Pressure was growing for the reform and part-privatisation of the GPO. Besieged by criticism, the then postmaster-general Attlee hired the publicity expert Sir Stephen Tallents to project an image of the GPO as the “outstanding example of collective capitalism”.

Previously, the British establishment had frowned on government advertising during peacetime; it was considered something indulged in only by dubious continental regimes. Now, though, state innovations were to be unveiled with dramatic showmanship. During 1934′s Telephone Week speakers were erected in Trafalgar Square to blare out Jack Hylton’s jazz band as they were flown over London in an Imperial Airways plane. Tallents commissioned the artist Macdonald Gill to design a new brand logo for the GPO. The introduction of the speaking clock, telephone chess and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s redesign of the Jubilee telephone kiosk followed.

The classic Night Mail poster.

The classic Night Mail poster.

Night Mail was part of Tallents’ effort to use emerging new media to promote an up-to-date concept of Britishness. Films such as Night Mail and Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time are testament to Tallents’ collective method of developing an appropriate identity for Britain’s burgeoning social democracy.

But such nostalgic risks reducing Night Mail to the status of a tatty-eared Penguin classic, when those who commissioned, made, starred in and watched the film were confronting some startling contemporary dilemmas. Grappling with public service reform, technological, social and economic change, as well as the growth of internationalism, is a tricky task. Just ask the Communication Workers Union. Or Vince Cable.

Visit our website to purchase tickets for Dr Scott Anthony’s talk and the film screening of Night Mail.

Night Mail is available on DVD from our online shop.

New Lower Prices on BPMA Products

The BPMA Shop now offers new lower prices on selected products:

Original Post Office Green Papers. In the 1930s the General Post Office hosted lectures on various new or innovative aspects of its business, from engineering to public relations. The Green Papers were published versions of these lectures, and they have become an invaluable resource for information about the postal past. These are the original copies of the Green Papers from the 1930s, 40s and 50s – so numbers are strictly limited.
Was £5.00 – NOW £3.00 each – or get 5 copies for the price of 4! Enter GR33N544 discount code at the online shop checkout when ordering 5 copies of more to receive the discount.

Original GPO Green Papers

Speeding the Mail – An Oral History of the Post Office from the 1930s to 1990s Audio CD. Covering 60 years of postal history, this superb audio CD provides a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes to see how the job was done. Postal workers past and present talk about the way they used to work – recollections from the days of the GPO; stories by those who delivered letters, packets, parcels and even pairs of rabbits; stamp designers and those postal workers serving the public behind the Post Office counter.
Was £11.99 – NOW £5.99

Speeding the Mail – An Oral History of the Post Office from the 1930s to 1990s Audio CD

Postal Reform & the Penny Black – A New Appreciation. Douglas N. Muir, BPMA Curator (Philately), describes the long campaign for postal reform in this important study. He illustrates his account of the period leading to the issues of the Penny Black and the Mulready Covers with a wealth of contemporary designs, proofs and other philatelic material.
Was £5.99 – NOW £4.99

Postal Reform and The Penny Black – A New Appreciation, by BPMA Curator (Philately) Douglas N. Muir

Night Mail T-Shirt. The striking poster design of the GPO Film Unit classic Night Mail (1936) has been adapted for these shirts. Like the film itself – a classic work.
Was £9.00 – NOW £5.00

Night Mail T-Shirt

You can find all these products and more in our online shop www.postalheritage.org.uk/sale.

The BPMA Shop now also has a new postal address and phone number for shop orders and enquiries:

BPMA Product Sales
Room 309, 3rd Floor
5 Almeida Street
LONDON
N1 1AA
Tel. 0044 (0) 207 354 7272

And finally, a little reminder that Christmas is approaching fast – so ‘Post Early’ and order your Christmas cards soon from the BPMA Shop: www.postalheritage.org.uk/greetings.

The Post Office in Pictures exhibition opens in London

Our fantastic photo exhibition The Post Office in Pictures is opening tomorrow evening, Friday, 18 May 2012, at its brand new London venue – The Lumen Church. The Post Office in Pictures showcases a selection of inspiring images sourced from the vast photographic collections of The British Postal Museum & Archive. From strange creatures sent through the post, to the daily deliveries by land, sea and air… the photos feature a fascinating series of windows on Britain from the 1930s to 1980s – including the unusual, the unseen and the quite unexpected.

Belfast – Post Office Exhibition: A group of telegram boys holding letters, May 1935 (Post 118/331)

After the opening night on Friday the exhibition will be open until 31 August 2012– right through the summer – and throughout the exhibition run we are hosting a programme of brand new events for everyone. To celebrate the exhibition’s opening night and in conjunction with the Museums At Night weekend, we have an exciting evening of activities on Friday 18 May, from 7.30pm till 10.00pm, followed by a completely free family fun day on Saturday, 19 May from 10.00am to 5.00pm.

We spent the beginning of this week installing the exhibition: BPMA Education & Events Officer Laura Dixon aligns the images correctly along the wall. Hours of measuring and using spirit levels have paid off as the exhibition begins to take shape!

Throughout Friday evening the exhibition will be available to preview. Artist and writer Guy Atkins will give a talk on The Forgotten Art of Writing Postcards. Guy will be asking if you are tired of texting, or bored of Facebook? Or if you want to make your life a bit less virtual? We promise after Guy’s talk you’ll never look at a postcard again in the same way. The postcard and stamp are free… but Guy will be writing your message. What will you make him write? And to whom will you send your card?

Also available on the night will be a ‘ludicrously brilliant photo booth’, supplied by The Mighty Booth. This bespoke photo booth fits up to nine people at a time, and with a pile of postal uniforms available to try on to create fantastic photo opportunities – the photos can be as imaginative as you would like!
We will also be screening Night Mail throughout the evening – with its iconic soundtrack from Benjamin Britten running to the mesmerising poem of W.H. Auden. – Surely a night to remember!

Great Yarmouth – Fish Wharf Post Office, Nov 1936 (Post 118/598)

Join us again on Saturday, 19 May 2012, for a fantastic family day full of fun hands on activities with Artist Lorna Giézot : story hand printing, interpreting difficult and dangerous deliveries, and creating your own image using the power of the sun.  Come along and create your own on Saturday in the beautiful garden space of The Lumen. If it’s raining we will be doing just as much but under cover instead!

Preview to the Family Fun Day: how to make ‘solar-powered images’ – leave in the sun and soak in cold water…

The iconic images from The Post Office in Pictures exhibition are available from our online Print-on-Demand service. Many of the black/white photographs also feature on our beautiful greetings cards and postcards. Buy them from our online shop, at the exhibition venue or at our Search Room.

Britten Films: An Exploration

The young Benjamin Britten wrote:

1936… finds me earning my living – with occasionally something to spare – at the GPO film unit… writing music and supervising sounds for film

In 1933 Britten became a member of the General Post Office film unit, which was originally set up to produce sponsored films relating to the GPO’s activities. As a result of Britten composing the music for the short films, there was a quick turnaround time and this helped Britten to refine and nurture his compositional tools.

The nine short films he worked on – covering subjects ranging from postage stamps to pacifism, the abolition of the slave trade to the electrification of the London-Portsmouth railway – are wonderfully made and fascinating historical documents. For example, Night Mail is a documentary about a London, Midland and Scottish railway mail train. The rhythm of the poem imitates the stages of the train journey, where the increasing rhythmic pace throughout the poem symbolises the acceleration of the mail train.

A still from Night Mail showing the mail train on its journey

A still from Night Mail showing the mail train on its journey

Britten’s music brilliantly reflects, amplifies and underpins the screen images with scores of rich variety and invention. It is a celebration of composer’s craft and filmmaker’s technique, an insight into 1930s Britain, and a snapshot of the art of propaganda before the term became besmirched forever by the extreme forces of political repression.

Aldeburgh Festival will be screening Britten’s nine GPO films in June with a live orchestra in the event Britten Films. Before the screening commences there will be an illustrated discussion, Britten Films: An Exploration, looking at the astonishing artistic collective which was the GPO film unit and how some of Britten’s very first professional commissions were to leave a powerful impression on his future creative life.

For more information on the events visit www.aldeburgh.co.uk or phone 01728 687100. The website’s ‘visiting us’ page helps you find out about where to eat, where to stay, and how to find us of course. Tickets can be purchased from the website and through the box office on 01728 687110.

Leanne Cox - Aldeburgh Festival

The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit is available from the BPMA Shop.

Mail Trains

Last year our Curator Julian Stray gave a public talk on Mail Trains; this is now available to download as a podcast. The talk looks at the long and often strained association between the Post Office and the rail companies.

Interior of Travelling Post Office, by George Charlton, 1935 (POST 109/375)

Interior of Travelling Post Office, by George Charlton, 1935 (POST 109/375)

Both underground and over, in sealed vans and Travelling Post Offices, mails have been conveyed, sorted and accelerated since 1830. Suffering the occasional mishap or celebrated by film makers (such as in the film Night Mail), the carriage of mail is considerably reduced today. Julian Stray’s talk touches on what went wrong, what changed, and why.

The talk is based on extensive primary research completed for the upcoming joint BPMA/Shire publication Mail Trains.

Download or subscribe to the BPMA podcast by visiting our website or through iTunes.

Visit our website to view a selection of items from our collection on the theme of Mail by Rail.

Night Mail: a classic?

Night Mail holds an iconic place in British culture. Say the words ‘this is the Night Mail crossing the border’ and you’ll likely get the response, ‘bringing the cheque and the postal order.’ But critics haven’t always been so impressed. There’s a strand of thinking that says Night Mail is a classic of British documentary by virtue of being the one that everyone knows. This is a critical assessment worth picking apart, because Night Mail is far more than the film of the poem.

Commissioned in 1935 to commemorate the centenary of the travelling post office, Basil Wright sought to apply the lessons of silent Soviet cinema to inter-war Britain. Viktor Turin’s Turksib was an important model. Borrowing techniques from Hollywood (Turin was obsessed by Westerns) Turksib tried to turn social, political and technological exposition into an exciting tale of progress. He cast the train between Turkestan and Siberia in the role of the lone gunslinger bringing order to the frontier. Night Mail apes this approach, albeit modestly, it illustrates how Britain is socially, economically and technologically bound together.

However, Wright’s love of the expressive grammar of silent cinema was disrupted by co-director Harry Watt, who wanted to focus on the life of the postal workers. It is creative tension in the best sense of the term. Interestingly, Watt’s eagerness to get across a flavour of the workers’ lives meant that the train interior had to be shot in a studio. Night Mail’s ‘realism’ was achieved by building a set of the travelling post office and scripting the workers’ dialogue.

Night Mail was also funded by the GPO to help improve morale. Beset by the industrial disputes of the slump era, the film was supposed to help staff understand how even the most humdrum of jobs could be of crucial importance. Not only is Night Mail probably the greatest train film of all time then, it’s also possibly also the greatest training film.

Night Mail’s unique sensibility remains key to its appeal. The dialogue may be flat, and the acting might be wooden, but the film retains a whiff of authenticity. ‘There’s something in these bags all right, Bert’, a postman says at one point, to which the sparring reply is, ‘must be old Fred’s coupon night’. There is something about the dialogue that makes you believe it, and more than that, makes you trust the sentiment that underpins it. Then again, Myles Burnyeat has argued that the meaning of great works changes over time. The fact that every time you watch Night Mail it says something different might be what, in the end, makes it a classic.

- Scott Anthony

Dr Scott Anthony is a Fellow of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, and co-editor of a new book The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit.

The BFI have produced a new DVD The Soviet influence: From Turksib to Night Mail, featuring GPO films.

BPMA Open Afternoon

Join the staff and Friends of the British Postal Museum & Archive at our annual Open Afternoon on Tuesday 6 December 2011.

Interior of Travelling Post Office

Interior of Travelling Post Office, 1935 (POST 109/375)

See a showcase of our fascinating collections, take part in a range of activities, talks and tours, and find out more about who we are, what we do and what we’ve been up to in the last year. Events will run from 1pm until 8pm, and everyone is welcome to drop in at any time and share a mince pie with us!

Activities include…

Hands-On Family Research: Was your ancestor a postie? Our Archive Search Room Team will show you how to research your family tree.

The Post Office in Pictures exhibition - for the first time in London! View the iconic photographs of the Post Office at work in the community sourced from the BPMA Archive.

Behind the Scenes Tours: Discover the treasures of the Archive – from GPO Posters to philatelic gems – led by our Archive & Curatorial Teams.

Tour of our Archive collections which fill over 2.5 miles of shelving and cover social, postal and design history from 1636 to today – at 2pm, 4pm and 5.30pm.

Tour of the Philatelic Studio led my our Curator, Philately at 3.30pm.

Booking welcome; subject to availability.

The History of the Christmas Card: Learn more about the origin of this custom with material provided by our Cataloguing team.

Preservation Surgery: Ask for advice from our conservator on caring for your own collection of family history records, postal history, stamps or photographs – bookings welcome!

Learning Activities Sample Sessions: Find out how our Access & Learning team engage school children and young people in our postal heritage with a range of activities and resources.

Mail Trains: Watch the classic Auden-Britten film production Night Mail (1936), talk to our curators about the Travelling Post Office and join a talk about the history of delivering the mail by rail at 7pm.

Still from Night Mail

Still from Night Mail

For more information and for booking a place on a tour or the Preservation Surgery, please call 020 7239 2037.

75th anniversary of Night Mail

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.”

Night Mail - artwork for a poster by Pat Keely (109/377)

Night Mail - artwork for a poster by Pat Keely (109/377)

You may recognise the poem by W H Auden, used in the critically acclaimed masterpiece Night Mail from 1936. This much-loved film marked the second of five film collaborations between the Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten.

This year sees the 75th anniversary of the film, and to celebrate we are putting on a special free screening. Auden scholar and author David Collard will explore the work of the GPO Film Unit and show Night Mail, as well as a selection of films by the Unit, including a variety of rarely seen shorts.

Still from Night Mail

Still from Night Mail

The GPO Film Unit was highly innovative and from 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for it. The films created had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits.

Night Mail - artwork for a poster by 'ART' (Alfred Reginald Thomson) (POST 109/376)

Night Mail - artwork for a poster by 'ART' (Alfred Reginald Thomson) (POST 109/376)

Films produced include documentary, animation, advertising, public information films, drama-documentary and satirical comedy on a range of subjects, from postal rates to working class pastimes. Budgets were small and rigorously enforced, to the extent that an overspend on Night Mail (1936) nearly signalled the end of the Unit.

Our event Happy Birthday Night Mail: The GPO Film Unit is free and takes place on Thursday 6 October, 6.30pm – 8.00pm, in London. Full details on our website.

A number of GPO Film Unit films are available on DVD. Find these in our online shop.

UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register

Yesterday our deputy director Samantha Rennie and I attended a reception organised by the Parliamentary Archives in the River Room at the House of Lords. This was organised to celebrate the inscription of new archive items and collections on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register in 2011. Among these are the films and associated papers of the GPO Film Unit, 1933-40. The nomination was lodged by the BPMA in conjunction with BT Heritage and the British Film Institute.

Left-right: David Dawson, Chair of the UK Memory of the World Committee, Gavin McGuffie of BPMA, Patrick Russell of the BFI, David Hay of BT Heritage.

Left-right: David Dawson, Chair of the UK Memory of the World Committee, Gavin McGuffie of BPMA, Patrick Russell of the BFI, David Hay of BT Heritage.

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents and it was created as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. The films produced during the relatively short existence of the Unit had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits and its creative impact has been immense.

The UK Memory of the World Register is a list of documentary heritage which holds cultural significance specific to the UK. The inscriptions come from across the country, span nearly 1000 years of history and embody some of the pivotal moments and periods that have shaped the UK.

Night Mail poster (POST109/377)

Night Mail poster (POST109/377)

To mark its 75th anniversary the BPMA is showing Night Mail, the most famous of the films produced by the unit, along with a variety of rarely-seen Film Unit shorts at the Phoenix Centre on Thursday 6 October from 6.30pm. Auden scholar and author David Collard (Auden wrote the poem which features towards the film’s end) will introduce the screenings.

DVD boxsets of a number of GPO Film Unit films, including Night Mail, are available from our online shop.

Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives