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King's Stamp, The (1935)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of King's Stamp, The (1935)
35mm, black and white/colour, 20 mins
DirectorWilliam Coldstream
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
Producer (uncredited)Alberto Cavalcanti
PhotographyF.H. Jones
 H.E. Fowle
MusicBenjamin Britten

Featuring: Barnett Freedman

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The design and production of a postage stamp for the Jubilee celebrations of George V.

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Philatelic production is perhaps not the most obvious subject for a movie blockbuster, but the immediate and lasting popularity of stamp collecting has made this one of the most watched films of all time.

The film was commissioned as part of George V's Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1935. The Jubilee sparked a massive, rather unexpected, outburst of popular celebration that perhaps prefigured the national unity evident during the Second World War. Focusing on the commissioning and production of the Silver Jubilee stamp (the first common colonial stamp designed for a reigning monarch's jubilee), the film is an odd mix of popular sentiment, social democratic conviction and imperial propaganda.

The first section shows Barnett Freedman - despite his middle-aged appearance, a rising commercial artist still in his mid-thirties - sketching designs at his London home and then working freehand, chiseling a greasy pencil into a chunk of limestone, to produce a lithostone. In the second third, the social informality and professional sophistication with which Freedman's designs become modern stamps are contrasted with staid Victorian attitudes. While Jewish Eastender Freedman is politely helped with his coat by a senior GPO official, in this 'period' section Rowland Hill's 19th century attempts to democratise the postal service by introducing the penny post are resisted as 'unEnglish'.

Eventually, Hill's idea is adopted, but the public still struggle with the idea of stamps. The queuing hordes worried that the stamps might be poisoned or fail to work. The film's ridicule of Victorian England - as a land of prejudice, absurd social snobbery and illiteracy - might surprise contemporary viewers, but is entirely consistent with the rise of 'managerialism' and other influential strands of middle-class reformism during the interwar years.

The final section details the rise of stamp collecting. In less than a century, a hobby that began with young women decorating their bedrooms and was picked up by enthusiastic young boys, bounded up the social and economic ladder. The climax is provided by stills from King George V's stamp collection. The King's interest in, and promotion of, stamp collecting was an important part of his public appeal. Indeed, it did not escape the King's notice - and apparently contributed to his good humour - that his Silver Jubilee fell on the 6th May, exactly 95 years after the issue of the Penny Black. The shots from his 328-album stamp collection have made the film of lasting philatelic interest.

Scott Anthony

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Addressing The Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1'.

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Video Clips
1. The design process (2:24)
2. Printing the stamps (1:56)
3. The first stamp (2:51)
Complete film (19:29)
Picture to Post (1969)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1935