Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Cable Ship (1933)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Cable Ship (1933)
35mm, black and white, 12 mins
DirectorsStuart Legg, Alexander Shaw
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducersJohn Grierson (uncredited), Stuart Legg
PhotographyA.E. Jeakins, John Taylor
MusicBenjamin Britten

A detailed account of the identification and repair of a fault in an underwater telephone cable linking Britain and Germany.

Show full synopsis

"A well-conceived piece of film rhetoric," said the Monthly Film Bulletin, which well describes this plain little instructional film. This is a film without a 'message', except in as much as the filmmakers convey, in its undertones, the vital strategic role played by the GPO's cable ships in keeping communications with the continent open. This was a role that was about to become even more important as war loomed.

The film is a team effort although film historian Rachel Low said it "owed a lot" to Stuart Legg (who has the production credit), but without specifying how or why. Direction is attributed to Alex Shaw and A.E. Jeakins, with Jeakins and John Taylor on camera. Benjamin Britten, though working for the GPO Film Unit at this time, has very little to do for this film (just a few bars of intro and outro), the sound being principally comprised of the commentary and post-synched dialogue by two of the cable repair men as they describe their particular tasks in re-splicing the cable. There is also at times that particular eerie silence only found in early 1930s film (due to the difficulty of reproducing ambient sound) which lends the seafaring scenes a pleasant summer afternoon quality.

The commentary is spare and to the point, describing the workings of the international telephone exchange and the work of the cable ship in keeping the submarine cables in good repair. Filmed mainly at sea aboard the HMTS Monarch (the third of that name owned by the GPO), the photography is good, in the European style with plenty of close-up work showing the detail of the processes and the ship's machinery. The camera lingers lovingly of huge chain links rattling over the sheaves as it does on the winding of the cable and the melting of gutta percha (rubber) to recoat the cable's core. High and low angle shots are also used to add interest to the work of the sailors and engineers and hint at the riskiness of the work. The use of the engineers' voices to add life and authenticity to the film was a novelty, although it is used self-consciously ("that's me on the left," says the foreman). This device was used more famously a year later in Workers and Jobs (d. Arthur Elton, 1935). There is a lot of detail but the film is not tedious and, job done, we return to the International Exchange to see the work continue unabated as the sounds of the ship fade out.

Bryony Dixon

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

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The international exchange (1:37)
2. Finding the fault (5:39)
3. Cable repair (3:15)
Complete film (11:47)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Topical Budget 779-2: Another Link with the Continent (1926)
Workers and Jobs (1935)
Grierson, John (1898-1972)
Legg, Stuart (1910-1988)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1933