Experimental filmmaking at the General Post Office

It’s hard to imagine a film as radical as Len Lye’s A Colour Box (1935) being used in advertising today, especially not for government services. New Zealand-born Lye developed a technique of hand-painting directly onto film, creating a hypnotic sequence of abstract colours and shapes which appear to shimmy and dance along to the film’s rumba soundtrack. Yet Lye’s experimental film was used to advertise, of all things, the General Post Office (GPO)’s Cheaper Parcel Post.

Still from Len Lye, A Colour Box (1935), available to watch for free at BFI Player.

A Colour Box is just one of the pioneering animated films featured in Secrets of British Animation, a BBC Documentary on iPlayer until 24 December 2019. Alongside Lye’s work for the GPO, it features Lotte Reiniger’s films for the Post Office, including The Heavenly Post Office (1938), and a wonderful archive interview with Reiniger discussing her work.

I first came across the German √©migr√© Reiniger’s work in a DVD of GPO films produced by the BFI, We Live in Two Worlds (Lye’s A Colour Box is featured in Part 1 of the GPO Collection, Addressing the Nation). We Live in Two Worlds features my favourite Reiniger film, The Tocher (1938), described in the opening titles as a ‘Filmballet’.

Still from Lotte Reiniger, The Tocher (1938), available at Vimeo.

Here we see Reiniger’s beautiful cut-out animation style at its magical best. Set to an enchanting score by Benjamin Britten, Reiniger’s card, paper and lead puppets move gracefully across a charming alpine backdrop of trees, castles and mountain lakes. The story revolves around Angus and Rhona, two starcrossed young lovers preventing from marrying because Angus can’t pay the bills. With the help of the canny ‘wee folk’, seen below with their beautiful cut-out skirts, Angus sets off to win his beloved armed with some useful Post Office products.

Still from Lotte Reiniger, The Tocher (1938), available at Vimeo.

It seems unlikely today that adverts for Post Office services could be quite so beautiful and imaginative. Yet the GPO’s Film Unit, headed by the documentary pioneer John Grierson, was one of the leading patrons of filmmakers in the 1930s and ’40s. They are best remembered for the wonderful Night Mail (1936), a collaboration between directors Harry Watt and Basil Wright with the poet W. H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten. But the GPO Film Unit also produced dozens of other gems, ranging from the experimental to the comic, from social realism to surreal flights of fancy.

To learn more about the GPO Film Unit, I’d recommend the excellent The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit, edited by Scott Anthony and James G. Mansell (BFI, 2011). Tate Britain currently has a display of Len Lye’s films from 1935-37: they are on show until 17 May 2020.

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