From its establishment in 1934 until it morphed into the Crown Film Unit at the outbreak of war, The GPO Film Unit was at the cutting edge of the British documentary movement. The BFI is releasing a three volume chronological survey of its output on DVD. This first volume covers the early years.
The General Post Office was the biggest employer in the country in the 1930s and its empire covered both mail and phone networks. Most of the output of the film unit was geared to explaining to the public the work of the GPO though there was room for the occasional non-GPO project. Thanks to the reach of the GPO, the unit's work as a whole gives a wide picture of ordinary life in the 30s.
The unit was a crucible where film makers could learn from each other and develop their craft. Film makers such as Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and Len Lye were kept busy under the watchful eye of John Grierson. The unit attracted not only the brightest young documentary makers, but also other artistic talents such as W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. Some of the most fondly-remembered shorts of the period came out of the unit, including the classic Night Mail (available on a separate DVD and in volume II).
This first collection demonstrates clearly how the film makers battled to overcome the limitations of their equipment, particularly in sound recording. They frequently made a virtue out of a necessity by creating impressionistic soundtracks or hiring avant-garde composers to replace on-location sound. This reaches its peak with Song of Ceylon, the soundtrack of which was composed entirely in Britain.
The discs come in a lovely package complete with a thorough booklet providing mini essays on each of the films, biographies of many of the film makers, and historical overviews of the GPO Film Unit's work. New transfers have been made of all the films and they come with subtitles. All in all, a very handsome production and an essential purchase of anyone interested in the films or the history of the period.
The Coming of the Dial
John Atkins Saves Up
The Glorious Sixth of June
Pett and Pott
Song of Ceylon
A Colour Box
The King's Stamp
BBC The Voice of the Nation
On the Fishing Banks of Skye
Pal - Region 2