Love letters and live wires

Posted September 23, 2008 in media  |  No Comments so far

On Sunday my girlfriend and I were attempting to make it to BFI in time to watch Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, but as a result of some Boris Johnson/Sky Sports-related event we became ensnarled in traffic and arrived ten minutes too late.

The BFI don’t show advertisements and don’t allow people in once a feature has started, so this put the kibosh on our plans. However, we took a look through the programme and noticed Love Letters and High Wires: Highlights from the GPO Film Unit.

Telecoms geeks will know what the GPO is—but not everyone is a telecoms geek. The GPO, or General Post Office, used to run both post and telecommunications in Britain, up until the creation of British Telecom in 1980. In the mid-1930s, the GPO set up its own film unit, and produced a series of public information films intended to educate the British population about its services.

This was a period when communications were being transformed in Britain – telephones were becoming near-ubiquitous and the postal service increasingly mechanised. A lot of people felt confused and uncertain about a lot of these technological advances and so there was a compelling motive for films of this nature to be produced.

The surprising thing about these public information films, though, isn’t the fact that they were made at all, but that they were of outstanding quality and originality. Among the eight short films we saw were examples of surrealist animation (Norman McLaren’s Love on the Wing), abstract use of found footage (Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo) and a fairy-tale approach to marketing Post Office savings accounts (Lotte Reiniger’s The Tocher).

Alongside these innovative pieces of work were some more traditional, but still fascinating, documentary films. Night Mail, the short film for which WH Auden’s poem was written, follows the Mail Special as it travels north from London to Glasgow. We see how nets sticking out from the side of the train are used to snatch up mailbags along the route without the train having to slow down (we were wondering, do they still do that? I hope so), and how the on-board sorters continually re-label the 48 pigeonholes they use with a different list of towns as they pass from region to region.

My two favourites, though, were both films with a more educational purpose. N or NW, a film by Len Lye, is the story of how a lovers’ tiff is nearly exacerbated by the incorrect application of a postcode (the guy thinks that Upper Street is in NW1 – shocking!) but ultimately resolved by the efficiency of the GPO. The Fairy of the Phone sees a spectral phone operator with crystal-clear diction provide advice and guidance on telephone usage to a number of confused characters. We are instructed on how to answer the phone, why it’s a bad idea to use outdated directories, how to dial ‘our friends on the continent’ and how long we should give someone else to answer our call. It’s not just informative, however, it’s extremely humorous, and I strongly recommend trying to track down a copy of it online.

That film got me thinking about how a modern equivalent might look. How would you personify the internet? What sort of advice would the personification would dish out? This made me think of AOL’s Connie (right), who would appear in television ads to sort out the (numerous) problems of AOL subscribers. She was the closest thing I could think of to the “Fairy of the Internet”, but to be honest she doesn’t really measure up to her predecessor.

No comments so far.  Post a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment