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date: 21 March 2023

GPO Film Unitfree

(act. 1933–1939)

GPO Film Unitfree

(act. 1933–1939)
  • Peter Parker

GPO Film Unit (act. 1933–1939), is the best known of several film-making collectives in what became known as the British documentary movement, which was active from 1929 to 1950. Under the leadership of John Grierson, often described as the 'father' of documentary, these collectives produced short films for a number of government departments and commercial organizations. As Grierson somewhat romantically put it in 1959:

Once upon a time, a group of men and women in England conceived of the documentary film as having a great public purpose to serve, and they worked it out, and they developed it, and they made the British documentary film an influence all over the world.John Grierson at the NFT [film] 1959, included in Land of Promise

These films were shown in schools and community-halls, but were also screened in cinemas, where they supported the main feature. The movement shared some of the aspirations—and indeed some of the personnel—of Mass-Observation, which similarly documented ‘ordinary’ life in Britain and was broadly leftist in its outlook.

Grierson and the formation of the GPO Film Unit

After graduating from Glasgow University with a degree in philosophy, Grierson was awarded a Rockefeller research fellowship in social science and in 1924 travelled to America where he spent three years studying the influence of newspapers and cinema in forming public opinion. He returned to Britain determined to explore film 'as a medium for education and persuasion' (Hardy, Grierson on Documentary, 13). To this end, he approached Stephen Tallents, secretary of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB, founded in 1926 largely to promote empire-produced goods), and was swiftly appointed the organization's film officer. By lucky chance the financial secretary at the Treasury, which would approve funds for the EMB's films, was an authority on the herring industry and was therefore happy to sponsor a film on the subject, Drifters, filmed by Grierson on location in the North Sea and released in 1929. Thereafter Grierson became chiefly a producer, gathering round him a group of talented young film-makers, including Basil Wright, Paul Rotha, Arthur Elton, Harry Watt, and Stuart Legg (1910–1988). He also recruited directors with already established international reputations, notably the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, who had been working in Paris, and the Canadian Robert J. Flaherty, who had been temporarily stranded in England en route for the Soviet Union.

By the time the Empire Marketing Board was disbanded in 1933 it had produced more than 100 films. These included Flaherty's Industrial Britain (1931)—which is claimed as the first film to show the real faces of Britain's workers and was shown in over 1000 cinemas nation wide—Wright's O'er Hill and Dale (1932) and Country Comes to Town (1933), and Elton's Shadow on the Mountain (1931). Tallents had been transferred to the General Post Office (GPO) as its public relations officer, and it was decided that Grierson's unit should follow him there, working out of offices at 21 Soho Square in central London and with a sound-recording studio in Blackheath. Although operating under different names and with different sponsorship, Grierson's unit remained essentially the same, and it would be hard to tell by looking at the films which were made for the EMB and which for the GPO—or indeed at what point the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit, which in fact happened in 1939. One of the reasons the GPO Unit remains better known than the others is that in addition to film-makers Grierson gathered around him creative young people from other disciplines, including the poet W. H. Auden, the composer Benjamin Britten, the painter William Coldstream, and the writer and artist Humphrey Jennings.

'A well-informed public'

'I have no great interest in films as such,' Grierson declared in the early 1930s. 'I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist' (Sight and Sound, winter 1933–4, quoted in Hardy, Grierson on Documentary, 12). He was nevertheless strongly influenced by such intricately shot and edited films as Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926), Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Die Symphonie der Grosstadt (1927), and Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures (1930). 'We had seen them all. We knew the techniques they had adopted,' he said, and he arranged Friday night film-shows of Russian and other classics for his colleagues (quoted in John Grierson at the NFT [film] 1959, in Land of Promise). He was also delighted by the unit's success at the Brussels International Exposition in 1935, 'when we went over and cleaned up the place with films like Song of Ceylon, Night Mail, and half a dozen others. From then on we were not just an English affair: we were a European affair'. Song of Ceylon not only won first prize in the festival's documentary class, but was also awarded the prix du gouvernement Belge for the best film in all classes. Grierson arranged for the medals they brought home to be mounted on velvet and presented to the postmaster general 'in case he had forgotten to take notice'.

Although many of the films were directly related to postal, telephonic, and telegraphic services, the unit also worked for other organizations, such as the BBC, the Ministry of Health, and—in the case of The Song of Ceylon (directed by Wright, 1934)—the Empire Tea Marketing Bureau and the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. Like most of the GPO films, The Song of Ceylon was inventively shot on location, employed dramatic camera angles and—as in the opening sequence of 'devil dancers'—got right into the action rather than standing back from it, to dramatic and even abstract effect. Influenced particularly by Eisenstein, many of the films used montage and music rather than conventional narrative to tell their stories, and alongside Britten, composers such as Richard Adeane, Walter Leigh, and Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) were commissioned to score the films. Although the best-known films were live-action, the GPO Unit also produced some experimental animated films. In The Tocher (1935) Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981) used her delicate silhouette technique to produce a 'Film Ballet' about the Post Office Savings Bank, while the New Zealander Len Lye (1901–1980) made a series of astonishing abstract films in colour, for which paint was applied directly to clear film stock. It would be difficult to guess while watching brightly coloured stripes and shapes jumping about on screen to jazz or calypso scores that A Colour Box (1935) was intended to alert customers to cheaper parcel rates, or that Rainbow Dance (1936), which also featured the dancer Rupert Doone (1903–1966), was aimed at encouraging Post Office savings. These are not the kind of films that immediately come to mind when the GPO Film Unit is mentioned, but they are a testimony to Grierson's willingness to push advertising to inventive new limits.

Not everyone approved of the GPO Film Unit. In 1934 a parliamentary select committee report was published which, according to Rotha, had been prompted by complaints from the film trade (which resented the financial support the unit received from the government), the British film industry (jealous of the widespread distribution of the unit's films), and the Conservative Party (suspicious of the unit's leftist politics). The unit survived this, but two years later, prompted by the Conservative Research Council, Special Branch sent a 'shadow' to report on the film-makers' supposed communist activities: the detective wasn't taken seriously—unit members pretended to be discussing bomb plots in his hearing–and he ended up marrying Grierson's secretary. Grierson was always able to satisfy his masters that he had no party allegiances. According to his colleague the director Pat Jackson (1916–2011): 'Grierson's belief was that a well-informed public was an assurance for a democracy … that if the public really had the true facts about the problems facing the country their vote would be mature—that was his purpose' (quoted in Land of Promise, BFI).

It was this belief that drew painters, poets, and composers to the unit. As Coldstream put it, the unit gave them 'the opportunity to work in a new medium which seemed technically and socially appropriate to the time' (quoted in Anthony and Mansell, 106). The credits of these films tended to be minimal, not revealing just how many people—who would subsequently become very well known—had worked on them. In Coal Face (1935), for example, only the names of Grierson as producer, Coldstream as editor, Britten as composer, and E. A. Pawley as sound recordist appeared in the credits, but Cavalcanti (director and sound direction), Auden and Montagu Slater (script), Watt and Jennings (additional photography), and Legg (sound) were all involved in this 11-minute film. The collaborative nature of the work was such that the unit's members sometimes found themselves performing roles outside their principal areas of expertise. Laurie Lee, for example, worked for some time as a sound technician before going on to become a scriptwriter. As well as composing scores, Britten was expected to spend time in libraries researching material, to interview a Welsh miner as background for Coal Face, and to supply sound effects ('chains, rewinders, sandpaper, whistles, carts, water, etc.') for On the Fishing Banks of Skye (directed by Grierson, 1935; Evans, 267). The pay was basic—Britten received £6 for a four-day week—but for many film-makers the unit was an invaluable apprenticeship. Jennings, for example, went on under the Crown Film Unit to become one of the most individual and highly regarded documentary film-makers of the twentieth century.

Britten and Auden

Coal Face was Britten and Auden's first collaboration, and notably featured the tender song 'O lurcher-loving collier', sung by a chorus of miners' wives (in fact a Blackheath choir) as their men emerge from the pit at the end of a shift. (Auden subsequently published the poem in both Geoffrey Grigson's magazine New Verse and his own 1940 volume, Another Time.) Most celebrated of all is the verse commentary Auden wrote for Night Mail (directed by Watt and Wright, 1936), with Britten's music brilliantly mimetic of the mechanics of steam locomotion. The commentary, like the music, was written after the film had been shot and edited, and had to be tailored to fit the images precisely, something which Auden apparently accomplished with the help of a stop-watch. He was also obliged to drop some lines for reasons of taste, a description of hills 'heaped like slaughtered horses' being a notable casualty (Hardy, John Grierson, 76). Even so, Auden thought the verse good enough to include an abbreviated version of it in his Collected Shorter Poems (1966). In September 1935 Auden and Britten also worked with Coldstream and Cavalcanti on a film, provisionally titled Negroes, about the slave trade and the continuing economic importance of the West Indies after abolition. Auden described it as 'a most elaborate affair, beginning with quotations from Aristotle about slavery and including a setting of a poem by Blake', and this may explain why the film was abandoned, Grierson having found what work had been done 'too “flippant” and subjective' (BFI Screenonline; Evans, 280). It eventually appeared in 1938, and much altered, as God's Chillun. (Britten and Auden's original conception was retrieved and recorded in 2007 for the CD Britten On Film). It is fairly certain that the BrittenAuden song 'When you're feeling like expressing your affection' was originally written for an unidentified GPO film but discarded. Britten additionally provided scores for The Tocher (arranging music by Rossini, which he subsequently rescored for full orchestra as his 1936 suite Soirées Musicales, op. 9); for Coldstream's The King's Stamp (1935), Fairy of the Phone (about switchboard operators, 1936), and Roadways (1937); and for C.T.O.: the Story of the Central Telegraph Office (1935), How the Dial Works (the automated telephone system, 1937), and Six Penny Telegram (1939). His and Auden's final film collaboration, The Way to the Sea (1936), extolling the electrification of Southern Railway's London-to-Portsmouth line, was directed by J. B. Holmes and produced by Rotha for the Strand Film Unit, set up by Grierson in 1935.

Auden's disenchantment with documentary became all too clear when he reviewed Rotha's book Documentary Film in The Listener on 19 February 1936. As was customary in that magazine, the review was unsigned, but Auden's authorship was gleefully revealed that April in the first issue of World Film News and a précis given of his criticisms of 'his documentary masters'—though Auden had in fact already left the unit (quoted in Auden, Prose 1926–1938, 761). Rotha himself was critical of the documentary movement, but it was Auden who (unjustly) suggested that a puritanical distaste for commercial cinema 'resulted in films which had many excellent qualities, but to the ordinary film-goer were finally and fatally dull' (ibid., 129). He thought that two basic problems with documentary films were the speed with which they were made and the 'superficiality' which inevitably resulted when upper-middle-class film-makers attempted to convey the realities of working-class lives. Grierson was reportedly furious about these criticisms, but whatever Auden may have felt about the films with which he had been involved, his work with Britten proved to be the first step in a long creative partnership resulting in works such as the secular oratorio Our Hunting Fathers (1936), the song-cycle On This Island (1937), the Group Theatre plays The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938), a set of 'Cabaret Songs' written for Hedli Anderson (1937–9), the operetta Paul Bunyan (1939–41), and the choral work Hymn to St Cecilia (1942).

Grierson left the GPO Film Unit in 1937, and was succeeded by Cavalcanti. Two years later, at the outbreak of war, the unit was taken over by the Ministry of Information, and as the Crown Film Unit became an official mouthpiece of the government. The constraints of working to this brief did not lead to a loss of quality and invention: indeed the war and its immediate aftermath were to some extent the highpoint of the British documentary movement. It was with the Crown Film Unit that Laurie Lee finally became a scriptwriter, writing the commentaries for Before the Raid (1942), about a Norwegian fishing village under Nazi occupation, but in fact filmed by the Czech exile Jiří Weiss under conditions of great secrecy at Portmahomack in Easter Ross, and North East Corner (1944), which contrasted old and new methods of farming and fishing in Scotland. It was also during this period that Humphrey Jennings made some of his best films: Listen to Britain (1942), a poetic portrait of the country at war; Fires Were Started (1943), about the Auxiliary Fire Service and featuring the novelist (and AFS member) William Sansom; and A Diary for Timothy (1946), which had a commentary written by E. M. Forster and read by Michael Redgrave and addressed a baby born on the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Many of the films made during the war looked to the post-war future and proclaimed that things could not go back to how they were, that social conditions had to improve.

The output of the GPO Film Unit was certainly uneven: the films tended to work best when kept short, and most ran to between six and twenty minutes. While the ambitious Song of Ceylon, which portrayed many aspects of the island's culture, justified its 40-minute running time, other films became over-elaborate. The King's Stamp, for example, begins by following the creation of a postage stamp for George V's silver jubilee, from the commissioning of the graphic artist Barnett Freedman to the printing of the sheets, but then veers off into an ill-advised history of the penny post, with would-be comic scenes featuring actors in period costume. Even the real-life participants, such as the GPO executive, seem embarrassingly stiff; this is particularly when contrasted with the natural and relaxed employees of the BBC in BBC: the Voice of Britain (Legg, 1935), a film that runs to fifty-eight minutes, but is so well filmed and snappily edited that it never sags. This film was notable for showing in action such pundits as H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, and popular entertainers including the Dancing Daughters and Clapham and Dwyer, who for most people had hitherto merely been voices on the radio. Audiences may also have been surprised to see that in a recording of Macbeth, some of the witches were played by men (among them the unit's own Humphrey Jennings). The film was clearly intended to show a nation of different regions, classes, and voices bound together by the wireless. A Britain apparently divided by such differences but brought together by being informed, entertained, and educated about itself was, in essence, what Grierson had always hoped to achieve.


  • F. Hardy, ed., Grierson on documentary (1946)
  • F. Hardy, John Grierson: a documentary biography (1979)
  • S. Anthony and J. G. Mansell, eds., The projection of Britain: a history of the GPO Film Unit (2011)
  • Addressing the nation, BFI DVD, 2008
  • Land of promise: the British documentary movement, 1930–1950, BFI DVD, 2008
  • K. Jackson, Humphrey Jennings (2004)
  • W. H. Auden, Prose and travel books in prose and verse, ed. E. Mendelson, 1 (1996)
  • J. Bridcut, The Faber pocket guide to Britten (2010)
  • D. Mitchell, Britten and Auden in the thirties (1981)
  • Journeying boy: the diaries of the young Benjamin Britten, 1928–1938, ed. J. Evans (2009)
  • I. Aitken, Film and reform (1990)
  • T. Rice, ‘God's Chillun (1938)’, BFI Screenonline,, 30 Sept 2014