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John Atkins Saves Up (1934)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of John Atkins Saves Up (1934)
35mm, black and white, 18 mins
DirectorArthur Elton
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
PhotographyJ.D. Davidson
CommentaryV.C. Clinton-Baddeley

Cast: Leslie Higgins (the clerk), Eileen Lee (the girl)

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The clerk John Atkins puts five shillings into the Post Office Savings Bank every week of his life. But the cover girl on a holiday magazine at the tube station sets him dreaming about a place called Summersea...

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Charmingly combining a whimsical romantic tale, practical information about the Post Office Savings Bank, and a gently experimental film-making technique, this film entertainingly depicts some of the prospects opened up by having a savings account.

After glimpsing a magazine cover showing the attractions of the fictional seaside resort, Summersea, normally sensible clerk John Atkins' concentration on his work falters. He daydreams at his desk of a pretty girl by the seaside and spends his lunchbreak sketching her. Like one in four of the population at the time, John is a customer of the Savings Bank. One of his saving slips travels along its elaborate administrative journey around the headquarters of the Savings Bank, together with his Summersea sketch that he inadvertently handed over the desk at the same time. The fanciful device of the clerk's sketch of the girl of his daydreams being pocketed by a young woman working for the Bank, results in their meeting on the beach at Summersea and romance blossoming. As the narrator declares, "All sorts of things would never happen at all if it wasn't for the Post Office Savings Bank."

John Atkins Saves Up is an early film in the career of Arthur Elton, who went on to become a key figure in the British documentary movement. Famously, he co-directed Housing Problems (1935) and later was particularly active as a producer. He was still in his twenties when this film was made, and like others in the GPO Film Unit, he had been brought across from the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit by John Grierson.

The later GPO film The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936), also about the Post Office Savings Bank, has been claimed to be the first 'story documentary'; however there is a distinct story in this film, which was made two years earlier. Given the small number of credits on John Atkins it is possible that some of the same people worked on both films, particularly as there was a strong ethos of working collaboratively in the Film Unit.

Despite the clear narrative thread, John Atkins remains reliant on a commentary, with neither 'the clerk' or 'the girl' having speaking roles, as the film pre-dates the use of synchronised sound by the Unit. Nevertheless the film uses a range of visual and sound techniques with a dry wit and some delightful moments of bizarre observation in the telling of its tale.

Ros Cranston

*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. Meet John (4:38)
2. The Savings Bank (1:45)
3. The drawing (2:01)
4. Sorting and payment (5:10)
5. On holiday (3:45)
Complete film (17:54)
Elton, Sir Arthur (1906-1973)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1934