The beauty of bureaucracy

Owen Hatherley looks back on an era when public-service films were a heady combination of wild exper

We might idly imagine a film made by the General Post Office in the 1930s to be comprised of a stilted Mr Cholmondley-Warner narration, with a few patronisingly depicted workers going about their daily business. Or we might have no preconceived idea, given the preposterous notion of the Post Office having its own film unit.

What we certainly would not expect is the first film in We Live in Two Worlds, the British Film Institute’s collection of the GPO Film Unit’s output from 1936 to 1938. This is Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance, four short minutes to promote the Post Office Savings Bank. First, we are hit by the garish, artificial colour, all purples, greens and oranges, then by jubilant Cuban music. We see a bizarre, psychedelic scene with the outline of the Houses of Parliament in the distance, and for the rest of the film we are in a narrative-free, fevered dream of 1930s England. Suburban tennis courts are transformed into super-modernist highways and people leap across lurid, surrealist backgrounds as painted abstractions career across the screen. Before you’ve had the chance to catch your breath, a ludicrously patrician voice proclaims the necessity of saving, and it’s all over.

This improbable film is possibly not quite as surreal as current events. Less bizarre, certainly, than a government that has been incrementally nationalising banks while planning to part-privatise the Post Office, after 400 years in public ownership. Yet the Post Office does occasionally need to remind people of its importance, and the GPO Film Unit was one of several initiatives established by the modernising bureaucrat Stephen Tallents in the interwar years in order to combat the public perception of the GPO as an aloof, monolithic state bureaucracy. Among the presiding figures were John Grierson, an ideologue of documentary film, and later the director Alberto Cavalcanti.

Although they were very different from each other in their style of work, both men favoured an unstable combination of wild experiment and sober realism. Here, after a decade of tradition­alist torpor, modernist aesthetics finally entered British public life with the anglicisation of Weimar Germany’s innovations (the great animator Lotte Reiniger was hired by the GPO) and the Soviet directors’ fierce, fast-cut polemic. Audiences were either non-paying and captive, with the films being distributed to public bodies, or, more rarely, paying customers, with the films acting as shorts before the main feature at the cinema. Curiously, the unit’s greatest success in theatres, Harry Watt’s North Sea, is a straight­forward drama-documentary, duller to contemporary eyes than the experiments in realist and surrealist montage.

No matter how hard the directors tried to hide it from their Conservative paymasters, a certain soft socialism runs through the GPO Film Unit’s work – one that in today’s context ends up looking perhaps more challenging than it actually was. Certainly the viewer in 2009, watching the final minutes of the unit’s most famous film, Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail (included here), with its droll, working-class participants, its kinetic montage and W H Auden’s thumping list of the post’s delights (“the chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring/the cold and official and the heart’s outpouring”), cannot help but mourn the loss of this everyday, public-service modernism. Yet this is also a world where tensions between the classes barely exist, and the Great Depression is noticeable only at the fringes.

Regardless, the world of the GPO Film Unit is a complex and contradictory one. The Post Office in the 1930s controlled the telecoms along with the post, and the films here show an innocent joy in new technology. Cavalcanti’s titular We Live in Two Worlds, written and narrated by J B Priestley, contrasts the world of borders, nationalism and standing armies with a “saner world” of international telecommunications, transport by rail, road and “air – where there can be no borders” – exhibiting a rather undialectical conception of combined and uneven development. Norman McLaren’s Book Bargain, meanwhile, is a mesmeric depiction of the nearly fully automated production of the Phone Book. Intricate, complex machines generate thousands of these objects without human hands – until we see a production line of women all sticking adverts on to the back cover, a task whose tedium the film’s brilliance can’t obscure.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Film Unit, and the British documentary movement in which it played a central part, were products of a middle-class obsession with mythologising the working class and “improving” its taste, luring workers away from Hollywood escapism.

Though this is not the whole story – Len Lye, its most extreme experimentalist, was from a poor family in New Zealand and had left school at 13 – it is undeniably the case that most Film Unit employees, such as Wright and Auden, were from upper-middle-class Oxbridge stock. One work that shows the GPO’s class paternalism at its most blatant is Evelyn Spice’s Job in a Million, where an underdeveloped working-class youth is nurtured by the GPO as an apprentice. Even though the poor here are never patronised, and speak eloquently in their own accents, it is rather unnerving to see line upon line of neat proletarian boys in shiny uniforms being trained by benevolent patricians. Yet why this should be considered more dubious than today’s depiction of the working class as dirty, stupid, racist and violent (from How Clean Is Your House? and the BBC’s White season to Guy Ritchie’s prole-face fantasies) is a mystery. Certainly, the postal workers’ unions supported the Film Unit more actively than did the GPO’s wary bureaucracy.

However remote today this enthusiastic public modernism may seem, a contemporary equivalent of the GPO Film Unit is not so unlikely. Shane Meadows’s extended Eurostar promotion Somers Town shares the wit, warmth and sen­timentality of the GPO collection, not to mention its tendency to paper over the cracks of class conflict. Maybe the time is right after all for the “People’s Post Office”, as it now brands itself, to return to its forward-thinking past, but it will need to shake off decades of neglect, privatisation and fragmentation first.

“We Live In Two Worlds: the GPO Film Unit Collection – Volume Two” (British Film Institute, £24.99) is available now