Addressing the Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume One Review

Addressing the Nation is the first a three-volume series of double-disc sets the BFI are devoting the GPO Film Unit, arguably the hot-bed of British documentary filmmaking talent during the 1930s. (A cinema touring programme has also been doing the rounds, though note that there is no cross-over between the shorts selected there and those present here.) Previously they’ve issued a collector’s edition of the Unit’s most loved production, 1936’s Night Mail, whilst a number of their titles also figured in the mammoth four-disc compilation of early British documentaries, Land of Promise. Indeed, this release follows the pattern laid out by that boxed-set: a chronological cross-section of films both classic and lesser-known (the period covered here is 1933 through to 1935); intelligently programmed additional material; and a hefty book, in this case 76-pages, containing various contextualising articles and detailed notes on each of shorts featured. Given the overall quality, not to mention the sheer diversity, of the films present I’ve opted for a similar approach. As such the following review may lack overall coherence as it jumps from title to title. But hopefully it should give some impression of the Unit’s output during these early years, the filmmaking talent behind it, and the range of experimentation they carried out, even when focusing on seemingly banal subject matter.

The Coming of the Dial (1933) Dir: Stuart Legg

Though we must consider the fact that Addressing the Nation is ordered chronologically, the decision to have The Coming of the Dial as its opener is an intriguing one. For it’s not exactly the kind of film to grab the viewer by the throat in the manner of, say, GPO figures such as Len Lye, Humphrey Jennings or Lotte Reiniger. As the title lays bare it’s an education piece on the then newly introduced telephone dialing system. The uncredited narrator takes a dry, informative tone as he talks us through the engineering ins-and-outs and, overall, The Coming of the Dial is a very sober film. Yet its inclusion is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it states quite clearly that these BFI compilations will not simply go for the “big hits”, as it were (much as has been the case with the BFI’s British Transport Film discs, and note that Steve Foxon – who oversaw each of the BTF releases – is amongst the programmers here). Secondly, it allows space for one the Unit’s lesser known creative talents, namely Stuart Legg. And finally, it demonstrates how the GPO titles would often transform seemingly inconsequential material (from a retrospective viewpoint, that is) into fascinating cinematic articles.

The last two points need clarifying, so here goes. Legg was a Cambridge graduate with a degree in engineering and his name would later crop up repeatedly within the documentary arena over the next couple of decades (stints as head of Strand, working for the Shell Film Unit and National Film Board of Canada, and returning the GPO under its wartime guise of the Crown Film Unit). The engineering degree is important inasmuch as it is here where The Coming of the Dial holds its fascination. As if to counter-balance the narration’s sobriety, Legg has created visuals that positively revel in the dial systems strange geometries and repetitions,. Almost like a holdover from the silent era, angled shots and close-ups are the order of the day making this short a visual treat. Yet without that dry voice-over it would most likely make little sense; effectively The Coming of the Dial needs its potentially dull, educative tones in order to be so bold and flamboyant elsewhere.

Cable Ship (1933) Dir: Alexander Shaw

Though likely to be a coincidence, Legg’s name crops up prominently on the opening credits of the next short (here serving as producer), again demonstrating his ubiquitous status despite having been sadly forgotten by the history books. Cable Ship is basically a “men at work” doc in the manner of the BTF productions of twenty-plus years later: Making Tracks, Giant Load and Take the High Road (all available on the BFI volumes). Slightly creakier these later efforts – post-synched studio dialogue matched up with authentic location footage – it nevertheless demonstrates many of the same pleasures. This is men going about a job in a no-nonsense fashion and the filmmakers do likewise. The job in question is repairing underwater telephone cabling (connecting the UK to the Continent) from initial problem to efficient and effective resolution. And this lack of suspense is perhaps what makes Cable Ship so enjoyable and such an easy viewing experience; propagandist no doubt, in its own innocent way, but then it’s always satisfying to the a task undertaken without worry, knowing full well that it will reach a satisfying conclusion.

Granton Trawler (1934) Dir: John Grierson

The discs’ first genuine classic and undoubtedly one of the highpoints of the GPO’s entire output. Yet, interestingly enough, the footage pre-dates the GPO by a couple of years, having been captured by director John Grierson shortly after the production of his ostensibly similar (and equally classic) Drifters (1929). But that was a silent film and, of course, Granton Trawler is undoubtedly a “talkie” – no music perhaps, but a rich tapestry of natural sounds, from whistling and waves to gulls, creaks and the thick-accented fishermen onboard the titular vessel. The fact that this rich soundtrack was created entirely after-the-fact (it is said that one of those thick accents actually belongs to Grierson himself) only serves to point up how much magic the Unit could come up with in the post-production stages. The old footage – intimate and observational – is edited by Edgar Anstey (later director of Housing Problems and Producer in Charge of the British Transport Films Unit) into an evocative, impressionistic blend, ably complemented by the narration-less soundtrack. In retrospect it must have been quite daring to simply leave contemporary audiences out there on the boat, as it were, but then this also makes it a debatably easier watch for the modern viewer: no off-putting ‘sign of the times’ stylistic devices or dated voice-over, just the sea and its sounds.

John Atkins Saves Up (1934) Dir: Arthur Elton

If Granton Trawler is marked by rawness and realism, then John Atkins Saves Up is best typified by the word ‘quaint’. A look at the inner workings of the Post Office Savings Account, it transforms this potentially uninteresting subject into a sweet little docudrama tale in which the eponymous character saves for a holiday (using said account) and finds romance. The jovial voice-over keeps things bouncing along nicely, but what’s particularly intriguing is the manner in which the on-screen dramas are never allowed to properly encroach on the documentary aspects. As with Ken Russell’s early Monitor films (Elgar being the most obvious example), the on-screen participants are allowed to do only that – participate by enacting little dramatic moments for the camera – as the narration dominates proceedings entirely, even going as far as to put on the voices of our lead and his new-found love, and keep them at a distance.

Air Post (1934) Dir: Geoffrey Clark

Though the title may suggest a prototype for the later, much-celebrated Night Mail, this sadly isn’t to be the case. Earning its place on this volume owing to its rarely-seen nature, and perhaps also to demonstrate that the GPO wasn’t continually pushing the envelope on every single production, Air Post remains a rather dry breakdown of how the titular subject works and little else. In the accompanying book Martin Stollery notes how historian Rachael Low “did little for [the film’s] reputation when she dismissed it as… competent but dull”, though to be perfectly honest, I find it hard to disagree with her. The film does it job in terms of delivery of information, but amongst such company it can’t help but stand out as the lesser work.

The Glorious Sixth of June (1934) Dir: Geoffrey Clark

Reduced telephone charges somehow prompted the idea for this undoubted curio. Dubbed “an epic of human endeavour” it is, in fact, a strangely beguiling blend of hi-jinx, dressing up and role play – with various GPO figures stepping out from behind the camera to take centre stage. The pronounced dramatic nature may provoke thoughts that this is therefore a pre-cursor to key later Crown Film Unit (as the GPO would be known during the war years) efforts as “Fires Were Started” and Western Approaches, in which non-professional actors performed in semi-documentary circumstances, but no – not really! Rather it’s a very silly piece of amateur dramatics which was no doubt far greater fun to make than it is to actually sit through. Certainly, there’s a real curiosity value – and to my knowledge no other film unit, be it Strand, Shell or Realist, every produced an equivalent work – but ultimately it remains just that. Humphrey Jennings making a fool of himself, long before he became one of the UK’s greatest ever filmmakers with the likes of Spare Time, Listen to Britain and the aforementioned “Fires Were Started”, is undoubtedly an intriguing sight, yet the satire is rather toothless; to point, in fact, that you’re never really sure as to whether the performances on-screen are lampooning ‘am dram’, or merely the real thing.

Pett and Pott (1934) Dir: Alberto Cavalcanti

Once described in Time Out as “Un Chien Andalou reworked by Gilbert and Sullivan”, Pett and Pott is both a companion piece to The Glorious Sixth of June and undoubtedly its superior. Jennings and Basil Wright (director of Night Mail and Song of Ceylon) once again appear in front of the camera, and serious subject matter, in this case the domestic telephone, once again prompts a piece of comic drama as opposed to serious documentary, yet the overall results are both more entertaining and more intriguing. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, it may lack the command he later bring to admittedly more professional and larger-budgeted productions such as Went the Day Well?, but if we do take into account such considerations as production values, production timescales and overall resources (the compact sets, for example, are a little too obvious) then it’s hard not to be impressed.

Plotwise, Pett and Pott is understandably flimsy given its brief running time: the Petts are typical loving suburban family with a domestic phone, the Potts meanwhile are a childless, phoneless couple – and needless to say the former are by far the happier. Narrative interest pales in comparison to the sound and visual experimentation, however. As with The Coming of the Dial, it’s worth noting that low-budget cinema remained quite close to the silent era and so it is that Pett and Pott’s unavoidable reliance on a post-synch soundtrack allows the visuals to escape into their own realm and create their own rhythms: a burst of slow-motion straight out of René Clair’s Entr’acte; unabashed use of repetition; continually striking montages. Add to this the overall oddness and kooky charm and the short becomes an unexpected delight, quite outside of the documentary norms seen elsewhere on these discs.

6.30 Collection (1934) Dir: Edgar Anstey & Harry Watt

Note Edgar Anstey’s presence as co-director for 6.30 Collection is a telling pre-cursor to his later work as Producer in Charge of the British Transport Films Unit. Moving this two-disc set back into strict documentary mode following the playfulness of The Glorious Sixth of June and Pett and Pott, this short is absolutely expert in its simplicity and delivery. A proto-Night Mail (not to mention numerous BTF titles, such as 30 Million Letters which accompanied Basil Wright’s film on the BFI’s ‘collector’s edition’ disc) it focuses on the late evening postal sort in the East End of London and handles a great deal of statistical information, yet does so in such an efficient manner that they never once overwhelm. The voice-over is concise, the overall reportage deft, and the cinematic decisions – such as capturing this massive undertaking from smooth high-angle tracking shots – utterly on the money. Arguably 6.30 Collection is this particular volume’s hidden gem, given that it’s never earned the reputation afforded Coal Face, Granton Trawler, A Colour Box or Song of Ceylon.

Weather Forecast (1934) Dir: Evelyn Spice

Equally straight-forward is Weather Forecast, albeit with a much dryer, educative tone. Essentially describing how the weather is communicated both within the UK and internationally (teleprinter, telephone, telegram, etc.), the chain of events allows for a distinctive narrative through-line – with an impending storm upping the dramatic impetus – and brisk pacing. Ultimately, it’s professional as opposed to outstanding, though the sound-image interplay, with the soundtrack often outlasting the visuals as the pace kicks in, deserves recognition.

Song of Ceylon (1934) Dir: Basil Wright

Another of the volume’s undoubted classics, Song of Ceylon is also, arguably, its most interesting. Captured during a five-month stint on Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by director Basil Wright – who seemingly just shot everything he could on the island – the short was commissioned by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board and intended as four individual travelogues of approximately ten minutes each. The structure effectively remains courtesy of the four-chaptered approach, though it’s unlikely that Song of Ceylon turned out as the Board expected. The travelogue elements certainly exist courtesy of wildlife, landscapes and Buddhist statues, but Wright opens out the picture far beyond the concerns of commerce and trade – subjects which gain rudimentary lip service, if little else. Indeed, by taking its narration wholly from a 1680 source the film seems far removed from what would have been contemporary ideas. Moreover its deft editing (as with Granton Trawler, Song of Ceylon was effectively created in post-production), providing shrewd links and juxtapositions, gives the entire project an air of ambiguity; you can almost read into what you will.

As such Song of Ceylon is also a film which has been maligned for numerous reasons over the years: blatant propaganda; paean to imperialism; vehicle of “unknowable exoticism”. Yet, to my mind, it’s the very indirectness of its message that allows this short to avoid such pitfalls. Wright simply observes and lets the material speak for itself, never once making connections in the obvious sense and thus showing his hand (if, indeed, he has one). Admittedly the soundtrack, created entirely after-the-fact, may face questions as to authenticity, especially when giving voice to the locals, but surely the only genuine subversion is that Wright took a potentially banal project and turned it into a stirring piece of cinema, still remarkable to this day.

A Colour Box (1934) Dir: Len Lye

The shortest and most immediate of the set’s films, it’s only the only animated inclusion, though future volumes should feature examples of Lotte Reiniger’s and Norman McLaren’s work for the Unit. Len Lye – much like McLaren – animated directly onto the film stock itself producing flourishes of colour and rhythm that burst into life and are over far too quickly. If you’ve yet to experience any of his films and have only seen stills from A Colour Box (or Rainbow Dance, et al), then it cannot be emphasised enough how little they do justice to the end product. Indeed, this is pure cinema inasmuch as it would be impossible to recreate in other medium – but of course, as it is the medium itself which is being affected. Further wonder also comes from the fact that Lye got away with such blatant experimentation: it’s only during the final stages that various animated titles intermingle with the colour and movement to inform us of “cheaper parcel post”. The accompanying book notes how Lye’s films can be seen as a pre-cursor to the music video, though I’m more inclined to compare him to such commercials directors as Jonathan Glatzer (now also a feature film director) who smuggle their own distinctive imagery into ads for Sony, Guinness and the like with scant genuine connection to the product in hand.

Coal Face (1935) Dir: Alberto Cavalcanti

An insight into mining and the miner’s lifestyle, Coal Face, with such a setting and its reliance on close-up and montage, can’t help but evoke Soviet cinema such as Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm. Indeed, it’s as though the film is continually battling its stern voice-over (delivered in a manner that seems more ‘important’ than in previous docs – telling of casualty rates and injuries – and looks forward to the style employed for later Crown Film Unit productions) to find some freer expression. The score by Benjamin Britten and input from W.H. Auden, blending a soundtrack of faint melodies, simple choirs, chitchat and whistling, create their own rhythms irrespective of the narration, thereby allowing the visuals to move more easily onscreen. The fact that they’re so impressive - increasingly more compact and mobile cameras allowing access to the pit as well as the miners’ community – allows Coal Face to build to a fine portrait and exemplary piece of documentary filmmaking, even within such limited screentime.

The King’s Stamp (1935) Dir: William Coldstream

Watching The King’s Stamp immediately after Coal Face it’s hard to imagine that William Coldstream (director here) was responsible for the previous short’s dynamic editing rhythms. Yet despite its flatness and lack of energy, this particular film is the GPO’s most widely-seen production, indeed one of the most widely-seen films ever in the UK. The subject is the production of the titular stamp to commemorate King George V’s Silver Jubilee, though this is broadened out with a brief history of the penny post (complete with mildly comic historical recreations) and the expected extolling of its positive effects. As with its remarkable audience figures, it’s the incidentals which provide the interest here: Barnett Freedman, the stamp’s designer, playing himself in some ropey staged sequences and some early colour processing employed when detailing the production process.

BBC The Voice of Britain (1935) Dir: Stuart Legg

The penultimate film in this collection, BBC The Voice of Britain would have made a fitting conclusion as in many ways it marks the culmination of the GPO Film Unit’s work up until this point. Clocking in at just under an hour in length, it was certainly their longest title to date as well as being their highest budgeted. The result of this was to utilise fully synchronised sound recording and an overall professionalism that builds on, or is at least the equal of previous experimentations. Indeed, the editing and overall style is almost invisible such is the sleekness resulting from the experience of the Unit’s previous undertakings. And so this detailed, delicately paced behind-the-scenes look into the early years of the BBC – the lawyers, the backroom staff, the performers (even Humphrey Jennings sneaks in again, this time in a radio production of Macbeth), the big names from H.G. Wells to George Bernard Shaw – plays extremely well, exuding confidence as it learns from those films which had come before it. (Although on-screen credits are few, it is believed that BBC The Voice of Britain was a genuine collaborative effort, which input from the majority of the GPO’s key talent.) Even the voice-over foregoes the vaguely patronising tones of heard in previous productions in favour of slight irreverence despite commenting on such a hallowed institution. Furthermore, this narration is only a single part in a dense soundtrack that matches the impressionist, wide-ranging whole – far more than we could possibly expect from a film which such a title. In fact, the whole enterprise evokes favourable comparisons with Jennings’ later Listen to Britain, such is the richness of sound and image, a high compliment I’m sure you’ll agree.

Sixpenny Telegram (1935) Dir: Donald Taylor

Rather than the mini-epic of BBC The Voice of Britain, Addressing the Nation instead opts to finish small. Directed by a 24-year-old Donald Taylor, Sixpenny Telegram sometimes feels more like a promo-reel than the finished article, such is its “student-y” nature and overall playfulness. Indeed, it’s altogether rather charming, cute even, as it utilises basic stop-motion and optical effects to youthfully promote the titular telegram. Its crudity perhaps makes it ripe for satire, yet it’s hard not to be won over Sixpenny Telegram and as such makes a fitting conclusion to this wonderful two-disc collection.

The Discs

Understandably, not all of the short films present are in excellent condition. Time hasn’t been too kind to many of the prints and even more so to their soundtracks. Yet the BFI should be applauded for the transferring of these materials and, indeed, for making them available to the DVD buying public (ignoring the fact that other labels, such as Panamint, have been issuing GPO discs – and videotapes – for a number years). As such whilst we must cope with hissing soundtrack (my only major complaint as sometimes this can become overbearing) and damaged film stock, the clarity and contrast of the imagery is never less than superb and we can feel comfortable that we are seeing these films in the best possible condition. Needless to say original Academy aspect ratios are adhered (without the unnecessary use of window-boxing the image, thankfully) as are the intended mono soundtracks. Hard of hearing English subtitles are also available on each of the films where applicable, and they similarly find their place on the additional material.

Though only two extras appear on the disc, both are welcome inclusions. The first, On the Fishing Banks of Skye, is a 1935 production directed by John Grierson and believed to be his last such credit. It’s featured amongst the extras firstly owing to its extremely rare nature and secondly because it doesn’t quite live up to his previous Drifters and Granton Trawler, both of which did much the same job. That said, the presence of Grierson himself as narrator ups the interest value as does the fact that many of us will be seeing this short for the very first time. The other addition is an intriguing little promo reel for the GPO Film Unit, featuring newly filmed material with the intention of giving us a look behind-the-scenes, as it were (though it’s far too tongue-in-cheek for that), plus fleeting looks at some of their productions. The fact that many don’t actually feature on this particular volume gives it the added quality of whetting our appetite for future volumes, which quite frankly can’t come soon enough! As already noted, there’s also the 76-page accompanying book which is easily the equal of that included in the Land of Promise boxed-set and can’t help but make the overall price of this package seem an absolute bargain. All told, a superb collection.

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