Tag Archives: N or NW

Publicising the postcode

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explored the issue of modernising the Post Office, looking particularly at the development of postcodes.

In order for the introduction of postcodes to succeed the public needed to be willing to adopt them. Psychological studies showed that the best means of achieving this was for the postcodes to “compromise familiarity and brevity”[1]. Once a system of postcodes encompassing both these virtues was developed and rolled out, the next step was for the Post Office to publicise the new means of addressing the mail.

The Post Office invested heavily in a range of campaigns to increase the use of postcodes. In the late 1970s these campaigns were intended to “remind, not persuade people to use their postcodes”[2]. This recognised that the main reason for not using a postcode was forgetfulness, rather than outright resistance to postcodes.

One character helping promote postcodes in the 1980s was Poco the elephant. Although the use of an elephant in publicity campaigns played on people’s forgetfulness when using postcodes, Poco himself is well remembered by visitors to the Royal Mail Archive. In addition to this poster, we also have a range of other material produced as part of this campaign, including a pen, a sweatshirt, a badge, and a vinyl record (the Postcode Song, with Poco on the cover).

Poco the elephant says… (POST 110/3083)

Poco the elephant says… (POST 110/3083)

Other campaigns, such as the one below from the 1970s, attempted to use storytelling as a means of increasing the use of postcodes. This style of poster gave more scope to explain why postcodes were important. The storytelling element also helped members of the public relate to familiar situations.

Slapdash Harry and the missing postcode - educational poster featuring a cartoon storyboard explaining postcodes, c. 1970 (POST 110/2686)

Slapdash Harry and the missing postcode - educational poster featuring a cartoon storyboard explaining postcodes, c. 1970 (POST 110/2686)

Finally this poster from the 1980s uses the notion of a romantic rendezvous to drive the postcode message home.

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode - poster promoting postcode usage, c. 1980 (POST 110/1137)

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode - poster promoting postcode usage, c. 1980 (POST 110/1137)

This romance echoes attempts in the 1930s to promote the use of London postal districts, as beautifully portrayed in the film N or NW.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Post Code. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.


[1] POST 17/173, Code Design and the Design of Keyboards: Report of work carried out on behalf of the Post Office, 1958-62.

[2] MD/FE/1342 Postcode system – design of postcodes and the extent to which consumer reaction was tested. Including “social survey on post office services” 1956.

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.

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.