Tag Archives: Benjamin Britten

Great Britons

Royal Mail is today issuing a set of ten 1st Class stamps celebrating some of Britain’s greatest individuals and their achievements. Entitled ‘Great Britons’, the stamp issue celebrates individuals across sport, journalism, music, politics and the arts whose anniversaries of birth or outstanding achievement fall in 2013.

The set of Great Britons stamps, issued 16 April 2013.

The set of Great Britons stamps, issued 16 April 2013.

World renowned actress Vivien Leigh, famous for her leading roles in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, takes centre stage alongside actor Peter Cushing, who is perhaps best known for his roles as Baron Frankenstein and Doctor Van Helsing in horror films produced by Hammer Film Productions.

Vivien Leigh, 1913-1967 - Stage and film actress.

Vivien Leigh, 1913-1967 – Stage and film actress.

Peter Cushing, 1913-1994 - Film and television actor.

Peter Cushing, 1913-1994 – Film and television actor.

From the world of sport, Scottish footballer and manager William ‘Bill’ Shankly features. Regarded as one of football’s most successful and respected managers, Shankly was manager of Liverpool from 1959 to 1974, leading them to triumph as First Division champions in 1964, 1966 and 1973, FA Cup winners in 1965 and 1974 and UEFA Cup winners in 1974.

Bill Shankly, 1913-1981 - Football player and manager.

Bill Shankly, 1913-1981 – Football player and manager.

Notable figures from the world of politics are also featured with the first and only Welsh Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and John Archer, the first mayor of African-Caribbean descent, to head a London Metropolitan Borough Council in the collection.

David Lloyd George, 1863-1945 - Prif Weinidog Prime Minister.

David Lloyd George, 1863-1945 – Prif Weinidog Prime Minister.

John Archer, 1863-1932 - Politician and civil rights campaigner.

John Archer, 1863-1932 – Politician and civil rights campaigner.

One of the UK’s best loved classical composers Benjamin Britten is included in the ten, with celebrated portrait and fashion photographer Norman Parkinson bolstering the arts contingent.

Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976 - Composer and pianist.

Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976 – Composer and pianist.

Norman Parkinson, 1913-1990 - Portrait and fashion photographer.

Norman Parkinson, 1913-1990 – Portrait and fashion photographer.

Richard Dimbleby, the well known journalist, broadcaster and father of David and Jonathan Dimbleby, is included within the set of 1st Class stamps, as well as celebrated cookery writer Elizabeth David, who was credited with introducing post-war Britain to ‘exotic’ Mediterranean cooking, featuring ingredients such as avocado, pasta, olive oil and red peppers.

Richard Dimbleby, 1913-1965 - Journalist and broadcaster.

Richard Dimbleby, 1913-1965 – Journalist and broadcaster.

Elizabeth David, 1913-1992 - Writer on food and drink.

Elizabeth David, 1913-1992 – Writer on food and drink.

Completing the ten is eminent archaeologist and anthropologist, Mary Leakey, who was credited with forcing scientists to re-think their long held views on human evolution thanks to her significant discoveries.

Mary Leakey, 1913-1996 - Archaeologist and anthropologist.

Mary Leakey, 1913-1996 – Archaeologist and anthropologist.

Writer and journalist Nigel Fountain has written the accompanying presentation pack, which provides an overview of the lives of the Great Britons featured on the stamps.

The Great Britons stamps and stamp products are available at most Post Office branches, online at www.royalmail.com/stamps and from Royal Mail Tallents House (tel. 08457 641 641), 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.

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.

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

Morten Collection Object of the Month: January 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

This month’s object: Travelling Post Office Mail Bag Apparatus

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

Model of mail train bag apparatus in wood

The Travelling Post Office (TPO) was first introduced in January 1838, travelling on the Grand Junction between Birmingham and Liverpool. The TPO is closely linked with Rowland Hill’s penny postage, which led to an increase in letter writing and the need to transport more mail at speed. The TPO ceased operation in 2004 as more and more people used emails rather than letter writing to communicate.

Travelling Post Offices functioned as mobile sorting offices, allowing post officers to sort up to 2000 mails an hour while on the move. In its heyday there were some 77 services from London to Plymouth, Bristol, Newcastle and others.

In 1936 the GPO Film unit produced a film about the TPO entitled Night Mail that contained a poem by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten.

The picture featured here shows a wooden and metal model of a mail bag exchange apparatus and forms part of a set consisting of track, carriages, a hut and smaller items relating to the Travelling Post Office.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses like this were used between 1852–1971 on Travelling Post Offices to pick up and put down mails without the need for trains to stop. The concept of exchanging mail whilst in transit is nothing new to railways and was used before where mail bags were often thrown onto and off coaches while in motion.

Mail bag exchange apparatuses operated in the following way: Mail was simply put into leather pouches weighing between 20lb and 60lb that were attached to an arm which would suspend it 5ft above the ground and 3ft away from the carriage side. The carriage was equipped with an extendable net, fitted to the body side, with an opening into the carriage behind it to catch incoming pouches.

It is alleged that the duty of putting the bags on poles was so unpopular that some postmen paid others to do the duty for them.

For more on TPO’s see the BPMA’s online exhibition The Travelling Post Office.

The GPO Film Unit

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. 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.

Night Mail

Night Mail

Made up of a dedicated, largely youthful (Britten was only 22 when he joined in 1935), but badly paid group of individuals the creative impact of the Unit has been immense. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents who transferred it with him when moving from the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), where he had been working to modernise Britain’s image, to the General Post Office (GPO), where he set about doing the same. Tallents retained John Grierson to head up the Unit, and commissioned work from them and other artists as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. It was Grierson and later Cavalcanti who were responsible for negotiating many of the complexities of working for a government department. Budgets were small and rigorously enforced to the extent that an overspend on Night Mail (1936) nearly signalled the end of the Unit.

Today the films provide a fascinating insight into the history of communications in the 20th Century and of course, postal history. They include documentary, animation, advertising, public information films, drama-documentary and satirical comedy on a range of subjects, from postal rates to working class pastimes. Some of the films are a reminder of a bygone era and some are still strangely relevant; documenting the difficulties of delivering mail to a flooded village or promoting the Post Office Savings Bank which was secured by government backing in a money sensitive post-depression age.

The films were shown in cinemas and other venues including schools and community halls reaching a very wide audience. As a result of the popularity of stamp collecting The King’s Stamp (1935), commissioned as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V, is apparently one of the most watched films of all time alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gone with the Wind and King Kong.

There were mixed ambitions behind the unit including using film to advance PR techniques, experimenting with film and sound, and an intent to empower British Citizens with information through film. Grierson’s vision was for a documentary approach to film making where reality was key and where films had a social purpose: ‘It was something altogether new to be looking at ordinary things as if they were extraordinary’. He was later joined by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, who had a reputation for experimenting with sound and music in film and eventually moved on to work at Ealing Studios. The combined presence of Grierson and Cavalcanti led to a hugely innovative period in British film history.

Colour Box

Colour Box

Work by experimental film makers such as Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger meant that the public saw cutting edge film animation used to promote the services of the GPO. Examples include Lye’s 1936 film Rainbow Dance, a film about the Post Office Savings Bank which saw Lye experiment with new ways of using the Gasparcolour film, and Reiniger’s The Torcher (1938). Lye pioneered the technique of painting directly onto film negative in Colour Box (1935), to which he had added a sequence on the introduction of new cheap parcel rates allowing the film to be bought by Grierson for the GPO. This was at a time when colour film was still a novelty so it is hard to imagine what the films must have looked like to audiences at the time.

The influence of contemporary art, especially Surrealism, can be seen in films from the animation Love on the Wing (1938), promoting the new Air Mail service, to N or NW (1937) on the virtues of using the correct post code, although Love on the Wing was later banned by the Postmaster General, who found some of the imagery too ‘Freudian’. Rainbow Dance (1936) was even released in a programme of Surrealist and Avant-Garde films. Cubism was also an influence as was Soviet cinema, as seen in films including Coal Face (1935).

The documentary style saw its high point in the celebrated Night Mail (1936) where the journey of the overnight postal express for Euston to Glasgow is told through the eyes of those who work on the train; making the working man the screen hero. But the realism gives way to drama as the now famous lines of  W H Auden’s poem are read to Britten’s score and the story of those who will receive the mail comes into play with the words ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border….’.

Grierson’s documentary vision at the Unit gave rise to drama-documentary and the seeds of our modern day soaps can be seen in films including The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937) – seen as the first ‘story’ documentary – and Men of the Lightship (1940).

Britain Can Take It!

Britain Can Take It!

In 1939 the unit began to document and produce films to support the war effort, creating an often poignant portrait of Britain during the early years of World War Two. Films included Britain Can Take It! (1940), produced to provide US President Roosevelt with help in securing American popular opinion for Britain’s war effort, to Men of the Lightship (1940), which was a dramatic reconstruction of the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship –significant as lightships and lighthouses had previously been considered neutral. In 1940 the GPO Film Unit became part of the Ministry of Information as the Crown Film Unit and with that the GPO Film Unit was no more.

Some of the films produced by the GPO Film Unit are now available on DVD from our Shop.