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Air Post (1934)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Air Post (1934)
35mm, black and white, 12 mins
DirectorGeoffrey Clark
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerRalph Elton

What happens to airmail between posting and delivery.

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In the internet age it may be difficult to fully appreciate the historic enthusiasm of Air Post. Yet during the 1920s and 1930s many British newsreels, travelogues and documentaries celebrated new developments in imperial civil aviation. These ranged from celebrity exploration travelogues such as With Cobham to the Cape (1926) to documentaries such as The Future's in the Air (d. Alexander Shaw, 1937), part of a 1930s 'aerial genre' representing various activities on Imperial Airways routes. This context has largely been forgotten and Air Post is now one of the least well-known GPO Film Unit productions. Eminent film historian Rachael Low did little for its reputation when she dismissed it as one of a group of routine productions. Even routine films can however illustrate the norms of a group style, and may include initial experiments with techniques that are later utilised with more sophistication.

Air Post's voiceover commentary is typical of British documentaries of its period. It conveys information about air routes, collection and sorting processes, yet leaves space for images alone to convey information (close-ups of parcel and letter addresses), rhythmic editing of sounds and images (stamping mail), and sequences where only sounds are audible (an incoming plane's engine and propellers gradually coming to rest). It also includes sound montages of ordinary people's voices, a technique used in the more famous Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/Edgar Anstey, 1935). At one point, quoted below, Air Post's prosaic voiceover prefigures W.H. Auden's poetic commentary for Night Mail (d. Harry Watt/Basil Wright, 1936) by itemising some of the diverse personal and business correspondence handled by the air mail service.

Air Post represents Britain connected to the rest of the world through a web of correspondence. The voiceover description of the actual content is: "birthday greetings, prospectuses, reports on industry on the other side of the world, letters from soldiers in India, reports on crops... banking returns and price lists". 'Birthday greetings' echoes an earlier Empire Marketing Board propaganda theme, eliding demands for independence and suggesting that relationships within the Empire resemble those between family and friends. The other references allude to ongoing imperial commerce, administration, and military rule. Air Post celebrates the potential of a modern communication system but embeds this within an underlying affirmation of an established imperial order. Similar tensions between progressive potential and serving the status quo characterise debates about the uses and representations of the internet today.

Martin Stollery

*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. Croydon calling (3:30)
2. Sorting the mail (3:22)
3. Catching the plane (3:56)
Complete film (11:20)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1934