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Tallents, Sir Stephen (1884-1958)


Main image of Tallents, Sir Stephen (1884-1958)

Sir Stephen Tallents was a writer, philanthropist, the founder of public relations in Britain and arguably the world's first multi-media entrepreneur.

Inspired by the example of the theatrical impresario Michel Saint-Denis, Tallents used his position at the governmental advertising agency, the Empire Marketing Board (1926-1933), to sponsor the creation of John Grierson's documentary film school.

Directing his charges to show "the forms of life not often represented in speeches", Tallents commissioned filmmakers, artists, architects and writers to modernise Britain's image. In practice, this meant a move away from more accepted symbols of national identity, such as Britannia and the Wembley Lion, towards a grittier iconography composed of Sheffield steelworkers and the labourers of Grierson's Drifters (1929) and Robert Flaherty's Industrial Britain (1931). Tallents was particularly preoccupied with the building of a modern cultural infrastructure, using his tenure at the EMB to create a film library for schools and other non-commercial audiences, and to sponsor a critical literature of journals, scientific papers and book-length investigations into the possibilities of cinema. When Tallents moved to the Post Office (GPO) in 1933, he made his employment conditional on the EMB Film Unit transferring across with him.

Tallents' career flourished at the GPO. The production of classic documentaries such as Night Mail (d. Harry Watt/Basil Wright, 1936) and the artful oddities of Len Lye formed but a small part of a massive rebranding exercise that included ventures such as the introduction of the Valentine's day telegram, the mass production of Giles Gilbert Scott's red telephone kiosk and the nationwide search for a 'star' to be the voice of the speaking clock. (The winner, Ethel M. Cain, subsequently carved out a short movie career as Jane Cain.) Just as utilitarians and the temperance movement used the Post Office to effect social change in the nineteenth century, Tallents' work at the GPO idealised the entrepreneurial aptitude of an expanded public sector - an important ideological development towards the creation of the welfare state.

Intellectually, Tallents' ideas found their fullest expression in his pamphlet The Projection of England (1933), which argued for the creation of a school for 'national projection' - a propaganda body that would defend the British 'sense of fair play' from the challenges of America, fascist Europe and the Soviet Union. However, while Tallents' notion of cultural diplomacy led to the creation of the British Council (1934), the body was ineffective during the interwar years, hamstrung by political turf wars and poor funding.

Tallents' later career took him to the BBC, (where he was Deputy Director General under Lord Reith) and the second Ministry of Information (where Tallents' soft-edged conception of propaganda proved spectacularly ineffective). After the Second World War he became founder President of The Institute of Public Relations and served the Royal Society of Artists, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Society of Industrial Artists and the Design Industries Association in various capacities.

He also was a member of the Committee of Enquiry into the Future of the British Film Institute (1948), which was instrumental in modernising the BFI and securing its government funding.

Scott Anthony

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