Tag Archives: film

New FREE Learning Resource for Key Stages 1-3

It has been 175 years since the invention of the world’s first postage stamp – the Penny Black. Pop It In the Post is a new FREE downloadable learning package that reveals how this little piece of paper changed the way people communicated forever.

Learning Resource - Cover

JUST A PENNY! 

In 1840 the idea that a letter could be sent anywhere in Britain for just one penny was revolutionary. For the first time ordinary people could afford to send letters, and the effect was as wide reaching as the introduction of the Internet.

Pop It In The Post supports learning across the curriculum and includes:

  • A downloadable learning resource containing lesson plans, teacher’s notes, image galleries and Powerpoints for whiteboards
  • Over 100 activity ideas, using real archival documents, photos, maps and museum objects to support subjects including Literacy, Maths, Science and Art and Design.
  • A fun animated interactive game for pupils to play and explore the story of the Penny Black
  • A short film introducing pupils to Rowland Hill, the social reformer who led the campaign for letters to cost just a penny who explains how his big idea changed the world.

This learning package was sponsored by Royal Mail Group

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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.

Mail Rail Conservation Project – Documentary Film

For the past year the BPMA have been engaged on a project to conserve the rail cars in its collection acquired from the Post Office underground railway, Mail Rail. This project has proved really exciting and has been followed keenly by a number of people. Back in April 2012 the BPMA held an open day at the Museum Store which gave visitors the opportunity to come and see the work being done and meet the conservator working on the project and the BPMA curators.

Throughout the main part of the project the BPMA commissioned a production company to document the process and create a short film that helps explain the work done. This film is now being made available for the first time via the BPMA’s YouTube channel.

Making the Mail Rail film.

Making the Mail Rail film.

As well as documenting the conservation work the film also offers a glimpse of the Railway as it once was, including black and white footage of the Railway from the 1930s and clips from the BPMA collection. These more modern clips show the Railway in 2005, after its closure. It is the last filmed footage captured of the trains being moved using the electric network. The BPMA holds much more of this footage that it hopes can be used in future projects or films.

Also in the documentary record are BPMA members of staff and the contracted conservator talking about the work being done and interviews with members of the public who attended the special open day at the Museum Store.

The conservation work on two of the trains is now complete but there remains more to do and the final phase of the project is to conserve the 1927 car held by the BPMA. This car is the only surviving example in this form of the original cars used when the network opened in 1927. It is the intention with this car to conserve as it is today and not to attempt to return it to the appearance it was in during its operational life.

1927 Mail Rail car.

1927 Mail Rail car.

Once this work is underway more details as to the progress will be published online.

The project to conserve the trains was funded by grants from the Arts Council England PRISM Fund, the Association of Independent Museums/Pilgrims Trust Conservation Scheme and donations from the Friends of the BPMA. The film was made for the BPMA by Voytek Ltd, a London based production company.

– Chris Taft, Senior Curator

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.

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.

We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume Two

The second of three deluxe double-disc box sets presenting all the key films of the GPO Film Unit on DVD for the first time was released on 23rd February 2009. It includes the much loved Night Mail and the experimental animations of Len Lye and Norman McLaren.

Created in 1933 out of the ashes of the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, the GPO Film Unit was one of the most remarkable creative institutions that Britain has produced. A hotbed of creative energy and talent, it provided a springboard to many of the best-known and critically acclaimed figures in the British Documentary Movement, including John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Wright and Harry Watt. Their work embraced public information films, drama-documentary, social reportage, animation, advertising and many points in between.

The British Postal Museum & Archive, in partnership with The BFI National Archive, Royal Mail and BT Heritage, has been working for several years to curate and preserve the work of the GPO Film Unit. Volume One, Addressing the Nation was released last September. Volume Three, If War Should Come, will be released on 13th July 2009.

We Live in Two Worlds covers 1936-1938 and represents the Unit at its creative height. The films included on the disc are:

Disc One
Rainbow Dance (1936)
The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936)
Calendar of the Year (1936)
The Fairy of the Phone (1936)
Night Mail (1936)
Roadways (1937)
Trade Tattoo (1937)
Big Money (1937)
We Live in Two Worlds (1937)
N or NW (1937)

Disc Two
A Job in a Million (1937)
Book Bargain (1937)
What’s On Today (1938)
Love on the Wing (1938)
The Horsey Mail (1938)
The H.P.O. (1938)
News for the Navy (1938)
Mony a Pickle (1938)
North Sea (1938)
Penny Journey (1938)
The Tocher (1938)
God’s Chillun (1938)

The discs are presented in a deluxe box with a 100-page bound book containing introductory essays, film notes and selected biographies.

We Live in Two Worlds is not just important in cinematic terms, but provides a valuable and fascinating insight into 1930s Britain. It is now available from the BPMA Shop.

For more information on the GPO Film Unit please see the Screenonline/BT Archive Interactive Derek Jacobi on the GPO Film Unit.