"The King's Stamp" was one of a series of short films made by the GPO Film Unit during the 1930s and 1940s. The original purpose of the Unit was to publicise the work of the Post Office, but they later widened their remit to make more general documentaries about British life. The style of their films tended to vary. Some, such as "Air Post" and "Cable Ship" tend to be dry, factual documentaries, but the famous "Night Mail" takes a surprisingly poetic look at a seemingly prosaic subject, the journey of a mail train from London to Aberdeen. "The Islanders" is notable for its dramatic photography, and "John Atkins Saves Up" uses humour to look at an even more prosaic subject, the Post Office Savings Bank.
This film combines two different approaches, the documentary and the humorous, in order to explore two different subjects. Unusually for a Film Unit production, this one makes use colour sequences as well as black-and-white. The "King's stamp" of the title is one of the series of four stamps commissioned for George V's Silver Jubilee in 1935. Commemorative stamps were few and far-between in pre-war Britain, and these were the first ever produced celebrate a royal event. (Such obvious-seeming subjects as Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and George's own Coronation had gone quite unrecognised by the Post Office). The first part of the film, told in factual documentary style, deals with the design and production of the new stamps. We see Barnett Freedman's winning design being approved by GPO officials, Freedman transferring his design to a block of limestone with a "greasy pencil" and the stamps going to the printing press.
The second part of the film deals with the history of the British postal service, especially the introduction of the penny post by Rowland Hill in 1840, and uses satirical humour to put across its basic point, which is that by improving communications postal reform played a vital part in the growth of British trade and industry in the 19th century. Those who opposed Hill's reforms are portrayed as ridiculously small-minded and reactionary, although there is generally something unsatisfactory about satire directed at the manners and ideas of nearly a century earlier. Did people in 1840, for example, really criticise stamps as 'un- English'? They were, after all, a British invention, and no other country had them at this period. There, is, however, a fairly amusing scene showing people queuing up in a post office to purchase some of Hill's radical new inventions. The film ends with a short account of the growth of the postal service, and of the new hobby of philately, since 1840, pointing out that George V was himself a keen stamp collector.
Like most Film Unit productions, the interest of this one is largely historical, and this one sheds some interesting light on the prevailing attitudes of the thirties, especially the rather patronising view of early Victorian England as snobbish, inefficient and backward-looking. Its greatest appeal today is likely to be to stamp collectors interested in the history of their subject.
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