G stands for GPO (General Post Office) and its film unit

Student with learning difficulties – please read fast to get better comprehension of text.

G stands for GPO (FU) or General Post Office Film Unit, which was set up in Britain in 1933 to inform and promote the inner workings of the Post office through the medium of celluloid. Filmmakers were sponsored to create documentaries and reports on General Post Office activities that could be broadcast to a mass audience.

Night Mail 1936 was one of the films produced for the GCO and directed by Harry Watt & Basil Wright, and included a poem written by W. H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten to build up the suspense of the steam train rolling ever faster to deliver it’s mail. This film is remembered both for its experimental visual documentary on post delivery but also for its dynamic poetic narrative. I include an excerpt below. (source: Aitken Ian, BFI)

The GCO also commissioned its film department to  create public announcements such as the need to ‘post early’ as illustrated in Len Lye’s 35mm film Trade Tattoo 1939.

This particular film ran in cinemas before the programme as a form of advertising, informing customers of the need to ‘post early’ but by its very nature documented and reported on the processes of letter sending in an artistic manner. The film has subsequently found itself a following and status in the art/ experimental film world from screenings at film festivals in an artistic context.  (Source: Horrock Roger,BFI)

It strikes me that the brief of the artists and filmmakers that worked for the GPO sat somewhere between that of advertiser and journalist, with the creator of the work discovering, picking out, interpreting and reporting on the brief they were given in their own distinct manner. I respect the artistic freedom with which they were allowed to complete these tasks, and that even by modern developed classifications these films cannot be ‘pigeon holed’ into a particular category. It also strikes me that the experimental and aesthetic nature of these works (especially those of Len Lye’s) if created today and in the future, would be marginalised and not reproduced in a journalistic or documentary format, lest the aesthetics distract from the message being constructed for the mass audience. It seems that the only mass audience field to be influenced by these films is that of advertising where the recent past has proven and set course for the future that the aesthetic ideas contained in these films are to be utilised when there is something to market, rather than inform, as shown below in this British Rail advert run in the 1980s.

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