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Sixpenny Telegram (1935)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Sixpenny Telegram (1935)
35mm, black and white, 5 mins
DirectorDonald Taylor
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
MusicBenjamin Britten

Animated advert with the chorus "Send a Wire", promoting the telegram service - nine words for sixpence.

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This little-known publicity film for the GPO telegram service is a product of the sandpit in which the young creatives of the GPO Film Unit were allowed to learn their skills. More experiment than experimental, more playful than avant-garde, the film is nevertheless a highly imaginative, visually and aurally stimulating piece.

Though Donald Taylor has the only credit on the film, it is probably safe to assume that the actual filming process was a more collaborative exercise. And exercise does seem to be the right word, with the use of models, stop-motion animation, optical and kaleidoscopic effects, testing ideas which would be more successfully repeated in later films. The Unit's facilities in this period were poor and the budgets negligible, however this is a fundamental factor in the inventiveness (as well as the occasional clunkiness) of the finished film. It does suffer from a slightly staccato structure, seeming almost like two or three shorter pieces stuck together, but as a piece of advertising the film is certainly successful in communicating its sales message, as well as providing basic instructions on how the service works.

The most memorable part of the film is Benjamin Britten's music. Aged only 22 in 1935, Britten was at the start of his 18-month employment at the GPO and some way off the Baron Britten of Aldeburgh figure he would become as one of the great composers of the 20th century. Plucked from the Royal College of Music by either Grierson or Alberto Cavalcanti (Britten gave two different versions of the story in his 1935 diary and a later letter to Paul Rotha in 1970), Britten's ability to adapt and improvise his compositions to match a developing film production were just as important as his musical ability. The declamatory choral chants, which shape the opening part of the film, are reminiscent of his work on Coal Face in the same year, but are less aggressive delivered by female voices. The "Last Post" musical gag is another example of the light-hearted attitude of the film.

The youthful approach to both music and image are almost certainly hallmarks of the recent arrival of Cavalcanti to the Unit, and although more ephemeral than some better known GPO films Sixpenny Telegram remains a joyful sign of things to come.

Jez Stewart

*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
Complete film (4:34)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1935