The GPO and Modernist Design
Volume 5, Cycle 2
The 1938 documentary film Mony a Pickle (1938) stages a sequence in which a young couple imagines their future life in a flat of their own. As they each describe what they want in their new, modern home, their wishes come to life through the magic of trick photography. Furniture and fixtures seemingly move on their own, new items appear, and dreary Victorian décor is replaced by modern conveniences and more disciplined design (figs. 1-2). The somewhat bizarre scene is unexpected in an otherwise sober film about the saving of money, but such staging of modernist design was actually a key feature in films ostensibly about the range of products offered by Britain’s General Post Office (GPO).
The GPO was one of the key agents of national modernization in early twentieth-century Britain. As an official government agency, it not only oversaw the postal service, but also provided telephone and telegraph services, a savings bank, government pensions, licenses, and the infrastructure that allowed for BBC broadcasts. Through its many activities, the GPO orchestrated the work and home lives of interwar Britons. Its institutional role within the state system was to connect Britons to each other and to the rest of the world via communications and economic networks. The successful integration and spread of these networks required Britons to accept the changes they required—changes to the national landscape, to local interactions, and to individual behaviors. GPO public relations campaigns, then, not only needed to educate audiences about the services the GPO offered, but also to convince them to accept these changes and adapt to the new regimes that national modernization required.
In this essay I look at how the GPO, through its films, attempted to accomplish its goals: to get citizens to participate in these networks, to accept the changes that they required, and to use the products of other agents interested in national modernization. While I briefly discuss changes to the national landscape, I focus on interior spaces—specifically domestic interiors—to consider how an institution like the GPO tried to engineer individual behavior and cultivate what I call “interior discipline.” Interior discipline meant organizing an efficient home and adapting to new protocols, and I argue that it was the primary aim of GPO films: the instantiation of GPO institutional ideology in the individual citizen. This ideology prioritized efficiency and order in the systems that undergirded communications, transportation, and economic networks and in the people that used them. While GPO engineers, planners, and accountants ensured that these operations ran smoothly, GPO films—as well as their posters, exhibitions, and publications—informed audiences about how they should behave. They also educated audiences about modernist aesthetics and presented examples of what the GPO endorsed as acceptable forms of modernist design—an institutional modernism that emphasized integration over disruption. GPO films, however, are not studies in serious, instructional filmmaking. Indeed, their attempts to discipline the public were created by seemingly undisciplined filmmakers who used trick photography, sound effects, surrealist imagery, and often outlandish scenarios to connect with interwar audiences.
The GPO’s extensive outreach and diverse efforts make it crucial for a study of the role of institutions within modernism and the ways in which interwar institutions attempted to infiltrate the everyday lives of Britons. It is also crucial for a study of the public relations machinery that “disciplinary institutions” such as the GPO used to achieve their aims. Foucault writes that such institutions employed “disciplinary methods” in order to control “the economy, the efficiency of movements,” and the “internal organization” of the individual (Discipline and Punish, 137). While he analyzes forms of control that emerged in the seventeenth century, his assessment and the strategies he highlights speak to the forms of control that were emerging in interwar Britain, namely the use of film as a form of state and corporate propaganda and the institutionalization of modernist aesthetics as a means of projecting a progressive image.
The projection of a specific national and institutional image was a particular concern for GPO publicity. As a state agency, it needed to promote an image of Britain as up-to-date technologically and working to clean up the messes of its Victorian past in order to help the nation improve its economic and political standing in international relations. In many ways, GPO publicity marked a continuation of the “civilizing mission” of the EMB (Empire Marketing Board) that Emma West examines in her contribution. The GPO, like the EMB, also wanted to show itself off as a modern institution: a developer of new technologies, supporter of British artists, and provider of interesting, entertaining, culturally relevant content. The GPO was just one of many interwar institutions that was interested in promoting national modernization, British art, and its own brand image—one of “the new Medici” that, according to Cyril Connolly, marked “a new era in the relations of creative modern art and big business.” The “Medici of our time” (which included Shell Oil and the London Transport Authority as well as the GPO) not only funded projects to update Britain’s image at home and abroad but also brought in artists that could help to improve their own brand image and articulate an institutional style.
The GPO house style was articulated in the pamphlet The Projection of England (1932), written by its publicity manager Stephen Tallents, who joined the GPO after working in a similar capacity for the EMB. “We must spread throughout the world,” Tallents argues, “a sense of English industrial quality and ambition, an impression of English adaptability and modernity.” The intertwining ideas of adaptability and modernity were the key aspects of GPO publicity and its designs for interwar Britons. As Yasuko Sugo has demonstrated “the strategic application of the modern style” was a way for the GPO to project itself as a modern institution. This application included the use of the modernist Gill Sans font in a new GPO logo launched in 1934, posters that included the “[c]utting-edge graphic languages of the period,” and exhibitions that “were also a self-conscious embodiment of modernity.” But what exactly did “modernity” mean to the GPO and how did it identify and encourage “adaptability?”
These ideas—the GPO’s conception of adaptability and modernity—were communicated in the output of the newest addition to the GPO’s publicity arsenal, its in-house film unit, established in 1934. Tallents had singled out cinema as the period’s most powerful publicity weapon in The Projection of England, and GPO films and its filmmakers both showed off—and were examples of—the adaptability and modernity of the institution and its audience. By adaptability, Tallents and the films that followed in his manifesto’s wake meant acceptance of the GPO’s plans for the design for Britain and adoption of the behaviors that such a design required. This design was the implementation of the GPO’s idea of modernity: the integration of new networks of communication and transportation in order to facilitate the flow of capital and the generation and storage of data. Adaptability also meant an appreciation of modernity in aesthetic terms, that is, the use of modernist strategies as markers of a brand’s broadmindedness and cultural cachet.
The 1930s saw the appropriation of aspects of modernist art for commercial use. Surrealist imagery, collage, and forms of abstraction appeared in advertisements and promotional schemes sponsored by the “new Medici” and other institutions. The GPO Film Unit attracted writers and artists like W. H. Auden, William Coldstream, and Humphrey Jennings precisely because it gave them some freedom to experiment with these techniques—as long as the films fulfilled their institutional aims. In addition to encouraging the adaptability and modernity that Tallents describes, the films had two broad goals: to get people to accept changes to the national landscape and to get them to understand—and act on—their personal responsibility in making these changes happen. GPO films experiment with sound, montage, and trick photography as part of their appeal to audiences. While existing studies of these films focus on these explicit subjects and the films’ formal strategies, their collective image of an improved, modernist Britain is an important aspect of their historic, critical worth. GPO films present what they see as improvements in the national landscape, in local environments, in homes and offices, and in the behaviors of those that occupy them. In the sections below, I examine the designs the GPO had for Britain both inside and out and bridge the two by indicating how the integration of national networks and new architectures required the acceptance of individual citizens and the interior discipline of the end users.
GPO films document the spread of transportation and communication systems and present what they depict as the positive changes these bring to Britain’s urban and rural areas. In these films, roadways, wires, cables, and pylons are presented as positive additions and celebrated for their sleek designs. These films were produced to explain to audiences the reasons for the construction of such systems and to provide a new vocabulary of images with which to identify British national identity. In The Projection of England, Tallents pushed for public relations campaigns that would move beyond the traditional images associated with Britain such as the countryside, Oxford, Cambridge, and cathedrals, and link modern Britain with modern symbols such as the London Underground. GPO films reveal the infrastructures that allow for improved communications and transportation and present them as models of British ingenuity.
“The old order is changing,” announces the narrator of The Coming of the Dial (1933), a film that explains the inner workings of the new, automated dialing system. But the “old order,” as the film reveals, did not just include outdated telecommunications, it also meant the old architectures associated with British national identity. The film includes a slideshow of new buildings that are not identified but feature the streamlined, glass and steel designs of modernist architecture and include the recently-constructed 55 Broadway building, headquarters for the London Underground with sculptures by Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein (fig. 3).
GPO films were part of “a range of attempts in the inter-war decades to engage with the problems of modernity through radical approaches to social and cultural reform.” One of the problems of modernity was getting the public to accept the changes that came with national modernization including the new images institutions liked the GPO wanted to link to British national identity. The GPO’s radical approach was to use film to reform attitudes. “New buildings appear against the London sky,” the unseen narrator of The Coming of the Dial announces as a way of subtly informing audiences that such changes were coming and they should learn to accept and appreciate them. The film pointedly contrasts St. Paul’s cathedral—one of Tallents’s old order of iconography—with the new GPO telephone exchange system being constructed right next to it. But this pairing also shows how such new constructions can fit alongside traditional, historic, symbolic sites like St. Paul’s. The new building is presented as a site of integration, a meeting point of cables and switches that allows Britons to connect to each other—and to the rest of the world—via automatic dialing. The film also presents striking, abstract images of this network’s components to demonstrate their potential as sources for new forms of modernist art. The film Speaking to America (1938) includes similar images as it celebrates “rural modernity” and updates the popular images of a placid countryside seemingly untouched by modernization. And Roadways (1937) finds beauty in newly paved and laid out highways and the traffic moving efficiently along them.
Throughout the 1930s the GPO used images of these interconnected networks to construct what Elizabeth Darling calls “narratives of modernity,” that is, they used films to document their extensive, institutional outreach and to dictate a vision of an ordered, planned, technologically integrated nation (Re-forming Britain, 1). But citizens needed to be integrated into these networks for them ultimately to succeed, and GPO films show how these citizens fit into designs for modern Britain. Pett and Pott: A Fairy Story of the Suburbs (1934) advertises the installation of home telephones yet also encourages middle-class audiences to move to newly built, well-ordered suburbs and integrate the disciplined routines that such living required. John Atkins Saves Up (1934) presents a similar promotion of suburban living and connects what the narrator calls “careful citizens” to carefully planned neighborhoods. Shots of rows of identical houses visualize the repeated pattern of behavior the film wants viewers to adopt: regular Post Office Savings Bank deposits and careful spending like the model citizen John Atkins.
Well-planned suburban neighborhoods were part of the GPO’s vision of a reordered Britain that also included modern schools, factories, and roadways. GPO films not only show off new, improved designs for buildings and transportation systems, they use them as part of their strategy to change citizen behavior. Housing Problems (1935) was made for the British Commercial Gas Association by GPO filmmakers as the GPO often hired out members of its Film Unit to institutions whose aims aligned with its own. Though not directly produced by the GPO, the film is useful to understand the GPO strategy of using interior design to impact citizen behavior seen in other examples of its output. Housing Problems documents slum clearance in Stepney, East London and shows off models of modern housing. Notably, the film’s commentary makes a direct connection between model housing and model behavior. As a voiceover explains,
When a public authority embarks on slum clearance work, it must take people jus as they are. It is, however, our experience that if you provide people from the slums with decent homes, they quickly respond to the improved conditions and keep their home clean and tidy.
The film does not just suggest but states that people can change as a result of their surroundings. Housing Problems is aimed at “enlightened authorities” and presents evidence that changing exterior and interior spaces can help to create more responsible citizens—working class citizens, in particular. Other GPO films attempt to communicate directly to middle-class audiences and use a similar, but more subtle, strategy of attempting to affect change through interior design. These films put the focus on the insides of people’s houses in order to demonstrate the shifts in individual behaviors that the successful integration of national and international networks required.
The film The Islanders (1939) uses a scene of a boy buying a stamp at his local post office as an example of everyday, seemingly unremarkable interactions between the state and citizen that often go unnoticed. The film uses this example to emphasize the positive, productive relationship between the state and its citizens, to engender trust in governmental services, and to get audiences to accept the intrusion of the state in their economic and social exchanges. One of the less obvious strategies the GPO used to accomplish these goals was to use interior design as another agent of influence. While, as I describe above, GPO films document changes in Britain’s landscapes, they also enter houses, offices, and factories as part of their plan to affect citizen behavior. Interior spaces are critical to the communication of their institutional aims. And accomplishing these aims did not just depend on the redesign of domestic spaces, but the adoption of new behaviors by the people living in these spaces. Interior design necessitated interior discipline—the acclimatization of interwar citizens to a new regime. In this final section I discuss how particular films helped to instill this individual discipline through domestic design. Interior discipline encompassed the arrangement and use of modern appliances and the integration of social networks into the economic, energy, transportation, and communication networks supplied and endorsed by the GPO.
Pett and Pott opens up the often-mocked identical houses of the interwar suburb to present two different modes of living. The film refers to the Petts as the “good citizens” because they install a home telephone, and the Potts as “evil citizens” because they do not. While the Petts and Potts share two sides of a semi-detached suburban home, their interiors—and intimacy—are radically different. Home design signals the Potts’ obsolescence and the Petts’ efficiency.
The interiors were designed by Humphrey Jennings, who had recently joined the GPO Film Unit (and would go on to become one of its best-known filmmakers). In a letter to his wife from this time, Jennings indicates his desire to work for Curtis Moffat, the modernist interior design firm—an admission that reveals an interest in interiors that comes through in the film. The Pott home is garishly decorated in the “zig-zag of ‘jazz modern.’” Like Mrs. Pott’s clothes, the decorations represent once-popular fashions rendered out of date by the film’s emphasis on a functional, efficient middle-class modernism. Mrs. Pott attempts to mimic the lifestyle of the upper-class London socialite she reads about in the type of “cheap” novel critiqued at the time by Q. D. Leavis. Indeed, the film shares some of the same attitudes that Leavis expresses in her study Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) in that it also depicts a part of the population suffering from the seemingly narcotic effects of popular culture. While Leavis uses reading habits to diagnose and treat a perceived social ill, Pett and Pott uses domestic design. The interior of each home is used to discipline the characters and “standardise different levels of taste” among the presumed middle-class audience.
The telephone—the ostensible subject of the film—is the main disciplinary tool but the entire Pett house serves as an example of the ideal home as imagined by the GPO. This home is one in which waste—waste of time, money, and resources—is reduced through adherence to a set regime and the effective use of modern services such as the home telephone. As Deborah Sugg Ryan argues, “there was an active relationship between the small suburban semi, its decoration and furnishings, and its inhabitants.” That is, the shift from servants to self-reliance in the interwar period meant the emergence of a more hands-on approach in the middle-class home: “a new, modern way of life” (Sugg Ryan, “Living,” 220). Pett and Pott dramatize this active relationship from the first shot of the interior of the Pett home. Mrs. Pett cleans dishes then cleans her baby with the aid of the hot water available in the modern kitchen. The camera includes the new gas cooker in a shot of Mrs. Pett giving her child a bath to show how the two work alongside each other in the modern home. Subsequent sequences show Mrs. Pett ordering groceries to be home delivered, talking to her husband in his office via telephone, and the family reading together in front of the radio (which remains off).
The film does not depict some clean-lined, international style machine for living encouraged by modernist urban planners and architects at the time. Rather, the Pett home is sensibly decorated in the late-Victorian style still popular with many middle-class (and working-class) Britons. While GPO films featured international-style schools and factories in other films, it was not aggressively modernist in its campaigns to change the insides—or outsides—of British homes. The depiction of a comfortably familiar interior that was not disrupted by the installation of modern services was part of the selling point of films aimed at middle-class customers. The GPO, then, did allow some leeway in its prescription for interior design. Modern features did not dictate the décor of interiors, but they did dictate the behaviors that went on within these rooms.
GPO films did not direct its message only to sober, middle-class suburbs and those who aspired to live in them. The Fairy of the Phone (1936) features a cast of characters but focuses on Mr. Parsnips, a young man who lives alone in a small, stylish, city flat. Chrome-plated tubular chairs sit amid an art deco cabinet and table. The built-in bed features a built-in aquarium, and an en suite bath completes the compact but elegant space. The interior is even given in its own close-up as the film first presents it unpopulated and allows the viewer time to take in its features (fig. 4).
These features reflect the then fashionable interest in ocean liners as an inspiration in architectural design. The flat also looks like the small flats for single professionals in the recently constructed Lawn Road Flats (1934), located near the London home of the film’s director William Coldstream. As The Times described Lawn Road at its opening, “Everything has been done that can be done to eliminate worry, labour, and expense, to avoid ‘clutter’ and restraint, and to make the business of living easy and pleasant.” The film’s inclusion of a similarly efficient, modernist flat shows off the GPO’s endorsement of such modernist projects, its appeal to be seen as a modernist institution itself, and the ways in which it could assist in the “business of living.” Mr. Parsnips learns how to answer his phone correctly by announcing his telephone exchange (“Gerrard 2667”), and he learns of new features such as the wake-up call, an example of the many ways in which the home telephone could be integrated into everyday life to make it “easy and pleasant.” In Mr. Parsnips’s case, the morning call is used to get him out of bed after coming home late from a fancy, white-tie party (fig. 5). The film shows that even such Bright Young Things who live a potentially louche lifestyle could be disciplined and made into productive citizens through adherence to the GPO regime. This is one of Foucault’s “docile bodies” accepting the intrusion of the disciplinary institution (Discipline and Punish, 138).
While The Fairy of the Phone features an urban bachelor and Pett and Pott aim to instruct married, suburban couples, Mony a Pickle features a sequence intended to educate young couples not yet married and without a home of their own. The film is an advertisement for the Post Office Savings Bank and shows a young, working-class couple imagining their future as they are left alone in the house the young woman lives in with her family. They describe their ideal home as trick photography illustrates for the viewer the updates they plan. The film shows the conversion of a crowded, dark space with outdated features into a brighter, modern home. The old coalfire range that dominates the main sitting room is replaced by a kitchenette “with lots of the new fittings and a sink with chromium taps” (figs. 1-2). A similarly modern bathroom is installed, and the many knickknacks are eliminated in favor of clean lines and smooth surfaces. The remodel of the house is matched by a remodel of the couple as they picture themselves in smarter clothes with neatly combed hair, a suggestion that they might move from their working-class backgrounds into the professional, lower middle class. Mony a Pickle, part of a Scottish expression that means many small things can add up to something big, attempts to teach audiences that small, incremental savings deposits can help people to achieve their goals. In this instance, it connects the transformation of a dreary Victorian house with the aspirations of a young couple. Like Housing Problems, Pett and Pott, and The Fairy of the Phone, Mony a Pickle links interior design with individual responsibility and shows how the integration of national and international networks entailed the rebuilding of both spaces and citizens.
GPO films aimed to instill interior discipline in both domestic décor and individual behaviors. They encouraged the design of modern yet comfortable homes in which new technologies could be easily integrated, and they preached adherence to an orderly, regimented way of life. While the subjects of the films display such discipline, their formal strategies were often decidedly undisciplined and feature playful, silly, surrealist, and, at times, sinister uses of sound and editing. These strategies reveal the GPO’s interest in modernist film aesthetics and its attempt, through the Film Unit, to update the British film industry. While the GPO was the largest employer in the 1920s and 30s and provided daily services for millions of Britons, its films offer further examples of its institutional outreach—and institutional modernism—as it produced some of the most inventive, experimental films of the interwar period.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage, 1995), 139.
 Cyril Connolly, “The New Medici,” Architectural Review, July 1934, 2.
 Stephen Tallents, The Projection of England (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), 40.
 Yasuko Suga, “State Patronage of Design? The Elitism/Commercialism Battle in the GPO’s Graphic Production,” The Journal of Design History 13, no. 1 (2000): 23–37, 23.
 Yasuko Suga, “GPO Films and Modern Design,” in The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit, ed. Scott Anthony and James Mansell (London: BFI Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 18-27, 21.
 Elizabeth Darling, Re-forming Britain: Narratives of Modernity before Reconstruction (London: Routledge, 2006), 3.
 Kristin Bluemel and Michael McCluskey, “Introduction” in Rural Modernity in Britain: A Critical Intervention, ed. Kristin Bluemel and Michael McCluskey (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 1–16, 1.
 Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 256.
 Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London: Pimlico, 2002), 21.
 Deborah Sugg Ryan, “Living in a ‘Half-Baked Pageant,’” Home Cultures 8, no. 3 (2011): 217–44, 220.
 Architectural Correspondent, “Designed for Living,” The Times, 4 August 1934, 15.