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Saving of Bill Blewitt, The (1936)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Saving of Bill Blewitt, The (1936)
35mm, black and white, 26 mins
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerAlberto Cavalcanti
 John Grierson
MusicBenjamin Britten

Cast: Bill Blewitt (himself); villagers of Mousehole, Cornwall

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After the loss of their fishing boat, two fishermen of Mousehole in Cornwall manage to save enough through National Savings to buy another.

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Acclaimed by Paul Rotha as the first 'story' documentary, Harry Watt's The Saving of Bill Blewitt can be seen to inform everything from Ealing comedies such as Whisky Galore! (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1947) to the films of Mike Leigh.

Ostensibly produced to promote the 75th anniversary of the Post Office Savings Bank, Watt's film dispenses almost completely with narration and instead improvises a story out of the people of Mousehole and the Cornish landscape they inhabit. From the village laundry blowing in the wind to the artist struggling behind an easel, Saving exhibits an unforced affection with place and people that was to become Watt's hallmark.

The film's conviction owes much to the very real Bill Blewitt, a local postman discovered by Watt. Pat Jackson remembered "a mesmeric gift of the gab, a glorious Cornish accent, twinkling blue eyes, a grin as broad as 'Popeye' and the charismatic charm of the Celt." Blewitt subsequently went on to appear in such propaganda films as Charles Frend's The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Johnny Frenchman (1945) and Watt's own Nine Men (1943).

There are several interesting historical aspects to Watt's charming film. The impact of the slump, in particular, hangs over the picture like a malign weather front. The inter-village scrimping and squabbling, the references to the broken rhythms of employment at the quarry and the evident, though unarticulated, vulnerability of the film's protagonists reflected the actual hardships of the village, whose pilchard industry had been further hampered by Britain's refusal to trade with Italy after Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia.

Against this backdrop of economic hardship, the film's promotion of Post Office saving occupies a rather ambiguous place. Systems of finance were a more directly political issue during the interwar period than we might appreciate - The Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit, for example, drew tens of thousands of marching enthusiasts - but in Blewitt the administrators of the post office savings account are unreal and over-earnest comic figures. Their near-farcical intrusions into the otherwise realistic story have an almost dream-like quality. Similarly, the brief narration that overlays the story implies both the difficulty of saving and the even greater challenge of achieving economic mastery. A moral but political point is made which is at odds with the film's otherwise gently comic flow.

Scott Anthony

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

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Video Clips
1. Postal savings (2:07)
2. Quarry (0:48)
3. Yacht (1:00)
4. Savings (0:32)
Complete film (24:20)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Jackson, Pat (1916-2011)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1936