Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Fairy of the Phone, The (1936)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Fairy of the Phone, The (1936)
35mm, black and white, 12 mins
DirectionWilliam Coldstream
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProductionBasil Wright
CameraJames Rogers
MusicWalter Leigh

Cast: Charlotte Leigh (the Fairy of the Phone); members of the London Telephone Service

Show full cast and credits

Advice on telephone etiquette.

Show full synopsis

The Fairy of the Phone is an example of the 'good humoured' publicity that Stephen Tallents, the GPO Film Unit's founder, encouraged the post office to produce. Tallents had been inspired by "an amusing cartoon film, produced by the Russian Post Office - the story of a caterpillar that was redirected in a postal packet all over the world, and finally hopped out as a butterfly."

Conceptually, The Fairy of the Phone is a Highway Code of telephone manners. Stereotypical figures such as a slothful golfer and a ghastly chocolate-scoffing child are shrilly rebuked for their bad manners, "Don't say 'hello', distant sub-scriber, announce your identity: 'Gerrard 2667, Mr Parsnips speaking.'"

In a gentle way, the government 'fairy' is also a figure of fun. In the musical number that ends the film she puts her back out by falling down some stairs and is then presented with some wilting flowers.

The influence of artist-director and future Arts Council luminary William Coldstream was perhaps also responsible for the film's unexpected surrealist borrowings. Mice live in an old telephone directory, a Cocteau-esque sequence sees a statue tell off the constantly munching child, and an attractive young woman accidentally phones a mad professor ("No, I am not Balham Town!").

The film also captures something of the glamour and attractiveness of the prominently-featured telephone exchange girls, who exerted a considerable pull on the collective imagination of the period. New services such as the Speaking Clock attracted hundreds of thousands of callers a week. After winning a 'golden voice' competition judged by the Poet Laureate John Masefield, telephone exchange girl Jane Cain went on to a movie career. GPO bosses bemoaned the fact that their telephone exchange girls were always so attractive to men, and thus got married more quickly and were difficult to retain in the Civil Service.

Interestingly, whereas much of the Grierson canon deals rather earnestly with collective male labour in a realist mode, the GPO's telephone films like Fairy of the Phone and Pett and Pott (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1934) fall into an alternative feminine, domestic and cheeky strand of the Film Unit's work. This is a low-modernist, ironic and whimsical celebration of the virtues of being practical, polite and sensible.

Scott Anthony

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (12:08)
Tallents, Sir Stephen (1884-1958)
Wright, Basil (1907-1987)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1936