Tag Archives: Rainbow Dance

Sir Stephen Tallents and the GPO

The poster for Night Mail designed by Pat Keely

The poster for Night Mail designed by Pat Keely

Sir Stephen Tallents, the innovative public relations man responsible for creating the GPO Film Unit, establishing poster design as an important part of the Post Office’s marketing activities and introducing the Valentines telegram (among other things), was the subject of a talk given at the BPMA on 29th October 2009 by Dr Scott Anthony, Director of the MA in Modern British History at Manchester University and author of the BFI Classics book on Night Mail. This talk is now available on our podcast

Tallents had a varied career before he joined the General Post Office (GPO). He served in the Irish Guards during World War I, but was badly injured in Festubert. Thereafter he returned to London and worked for a number of government departments until he became Secretary to the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) in 1926. The EMB’s purpose was to promote trade between British Empire nations and Tallents made full use of the modern media, setting up a film unit (led by John Grierson) and employing artists such as Edward McKnight Kauffer to design posters.

A still from the GPO Film Unit film Rainbow Dance

A still from the GPO Film Unit film Rainbow Dance

When the EMB was abolished in 1933, Tallents took up public relations work for the GPO, bringing the film unit and Grierson with him, and establishing a way of working which drew on the expertise of leading figures from the arts and communications industries in a consultative capacity. Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery but later most famous for the BBC TV series Civilisation, was one of many involved.

Dr Anthony’s talk examines Tallent’s career, showing how his many experiences and jobs led him to virtually invent public relations in the UK, and establish a long-lasting corporate identity and marketing strategy for the GPO.

Tallent’s work in the area of poster design will be one of the subjects covered in our next podcast, in which Dr Paul Rennie, Head of Context in Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins, London, will explore the history and development of poster art and communication at the GPO.

The Big Draw at the Museum Store

by Laura Dixon, Learning Officer

BPMA will be holding a Big Draw event on Saturday 10 October at the BPMA Museum Store from 10.00am – 4.00pm to fit in with this year’s theme of Colour in the Big Draw.

The Big Draw aims to get everyone drawing – adults and children alike. BPMA is delighted to be working with designer and illustrator Izzy Jaffer, who will be helping visitors create their own detailed colour drawings of objects on display. If you think you can’t draw, Izzy will show you otherwise. She says “…anyone can draw anything by simply breaking down the subject into simple shapes and adding in the detail once the shape and proportion are right.”

Drawing sessions will be drop in from 10.15am – 12.30pm and 1.30pm -3.30pm. All are welcome at this free, day long event, but please book (see details below).

As well as the drawing workshops, this open day will also feature tours of the Store with our Curator, films, worksheets and quizzes and the chance to win special BPMA prizes!

A selection of GPO Film Unit films will be chosen to fit in with the theme of Colour – such as Night Mail 2, an updated version of the classic 1936 Night Mail, made in 1986 in colour with poetry by Blake Morrison.

We will also show some of the pioneering colour films made for the GPO in the 1930s by experimental director and artist Len Lye. One of Lye’s films, A Colour Box (1935), was made without a camera; Lye painted directly onto the celluloid and in doing so created a film which divided audience opinion at the time between adulation and derision.

Other Lye films to be shown include Rainbow Dance (1936), a 5 minute ‘film ballet’, and Trade Tattoo (1937), which uses some leftover footage from other GPO films (such as the first Night Mail) to make a short film about the British working day, whilst also encouraging viewers to Post Early.

The open day offers an exciting opportunity to see many of the BPMA’s collection of objects on display in a working store.

What is a Store?

Visitors should be prepared for something different from a traditional museum when coming to the Store. Because the BPMA does not currently have the space to display all of its larger objects on a permanent basis, they are kept safely in the Store at Debden. There aren’t the usual interpretive panels you would see in a museum, and there may be some items that are undergoing repairs, as well as some new acquisitions.

The BPMA Store contains objects ranging from the desk of Rowland Hill (founder of the Penny Post), to a carriage from Post Office Underground Railway, letter boxes, bicycles, motorcycles and more.

To book your place, please contact info@postalheritage.org.uk or phone 020 7239 2570 and state whether you would like to com in the morning or afternoon.

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.